Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans – this year’s prospective Best Picture frontrunner, the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival’s People’s Choice Award winner, and the latest film from perhaps our most famous living director – flopped in its semi-wide release at the domestic box this past weekend, grossing $2.2 million over three days ($3.1 million over the five-day Thanksgiving holiday) for a poor per theater average of $3,544. This comes only one weekend after Maria Schrader’s She Said – Universal Pictures’ other awards hopeful this year, centered around the New York Times investigation that took down former film producer Harvey Weinstein – also grossed $2.2 million in its opening weekend one week prior (and these results were even more troubling, given that She Said was in 2,002 theaters to The Fabelmans’ 638, which means it only generated an alarming $1,096 per theater average).
Left and right, this year’s awards contenders are dropping like flies at the box office, and it seems like no film – no matter how starry its cast, or how acclaimed the auteur helming it is – is immune from mainstream indifference to (almost) anything that doesn’t take place in the MCU or an existing IP these days. To be fair, this isn’t just a 2022 problem; it’s been apparent for a few years now that the “blockbusterization” of the box office is in full swing (let’s not forget 2019, when Disney earned 33% of all domestic box office grosses all on its own) as adult audiences are becoming conditioned to consume all other art and entertainment via streaming or PVOD. However, it’s equally obvious that the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the annihilation of adult-targeted fare and awards films at the domestic box office, as, comparing and contrasting how prestige pictures have performed before and after 2020 paints a not-so-promising picture.
In 2019, five of the nine Best Picture nominees – films of varying genres, shapes, and sizes – grossed over $100 million at the domestic box office: Joker ($335 million), 1917 ($159 million), Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ($143 million), Ford v. Ferrari ($118 million), and Little Women ($108 million). Meanwhile, the eventual winner, Parasite, grossed $53 million at the domestic box office and $253 million worldwide, despite being an almost 2 ½ hour long foreign language film, which American audiences rarely flock to in droves. The commercial success of these awards contenders (and Parasite’s in particular) showcased the domestic box office at its healthiest – when there’s room for everyone, and audiences are willing to take risks at the theater and check out films outside of established and reliable franchises, thanks to critical recommendations and rave word-of-mouth. And then, the pandemic happened.
It’s probably unfair to hyper assess the box office of the Best Picture nominees of the 2020-2021 awards season, given that theaters were essentially shut down the entire year, but the 2021-2022 awards season is fair game, since, when most of these nominees were released, most theaters were also up and running again, and audiences were certainly showing up for some things if a film like Spider-Man: No Way Home could make $814 million domestically. And yet, only one Best Picture nominee last year crossed $100 million at the domestic box office: Dune ($108 million). The next highest grossing nominee? Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story ($39 million), followed by Licorice Pizza ($17 million), King Richard ($15 million), Nightmare Alley ($11 million), Belfast ($9 million), and Drive My Car ($2 million), while domestic grosses for CODA, Don’t Look Up, and The Power of the Dog were unavailable.
One argument you could make to defend the poor domestic box office of these awards contenders last season was, “it will take more than one year for the domestic box office to return to ‘normal.’” However, here we are, almost one year later, and this year’s contenders aren’t doing any better. Aside from box office behemoth Top Gun: Maverick ($716 million), Baz Luhrmann’s bombastic Elvis biopic ($151 million), and indie smash hit sensation Everything Everywhere All at Once ($70 million), these returns are pretty bleak: Till ($9 million), The Banshees of Inisherin ($8 million), TÁR ($5 million), She Said ($4 million), Triangle of Sadness ($4 million), Bones and All ($4 million), The Fabelmans ($3 million), Armageddon Time ($2 million), and Aftersun ($760,000). To make matters worse, although James Cameron’s long-awaited Avatar: The Way of Water should end the year with a bang, currently tracking for a near $200 million opening weekend and potential $700 million finish, Damien Chazelle’s star-studded Babylon is conversely tracking for a $4-9 million opening and an $18-39 million finish, with Box Office Pro even noting that “initial tracking is comparable to that of Amsterdam,” which itself was a starry ensemble-led adventure that bombed with $15 million domestically. Yikes.
Why are audiences abandoning all adult-targeted films and awards contenders these days, and moreso post-COVID? Is it just because they’ve become acquainted with catching these titles (typically, those of the drama/comedy variety, which once used to rank alongside action and sci-fi at the box office) at home and reserving theater visits for the films that “demand the theatrical experience,” due to their big-budget bombast like Top Gun 2 and Jurassic Park 6? That certainly seems to be the prevailing argument, and one that’s not too off-base given how these pictures tend to “pop” on PVOD or streaming services when they’re available for a click of the remote from your couch. Another theory that’s been posited is that these films are simply too “serious” and “heavy” for American audiences craving “comfort” and “escapism” following the exasperating communal experience that was the coronavirus outbreak and the continuing political turmoil that shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. The box office has been top heavy with blockbusters since the start of the 21st Century (and honestly, a bit before then, too), but it’s tough to deny that the sociocultural climate is bleaker than it’s maybe ever been these days. So, as sad as it is to see acclaimed and ambitious art go ignored, is it really all that surprising that films like Till, The Banshees of Inisherin, or She Said aren’t exactly “packing ‘em in”?
However, for all this handwringing – and all the obituary writing for this year’s awards contenders in the trades – there remains one pressing point that hasn’t been prioritized as much as it should be; at the end of the day, there’s a chance that none of this matters. Last year’s Best Picture winner CODA barely even played in theaters (IndieWire estimated that it grossed around $100,000 in its domestic opening weekend, while it reportedly only earned $1.6 million worldwide at the end of its run). King Richard being a box office bomb didn’t prevent Will Smith from winning every Best Actor award under the sun. The Eyes of Tammy Faye only grossed $2.4 million at the domestic box office, and Jessica Chastain still reigned supreme in Best Actress when all was said and done. While it’s still early days in a “post-COVID” world, we may be headed into a new era of awards season – one where box office is irrelevant. Because, if everybody’s “bombing,” how can one film be singled out for its financial struggles above all of the others?
Additionally, for all the “bad” that streaming can supposedly do, now that essentially every major movie studio owns their own streaming service (and perhaps even a corresponding television network, to boot), certain films are able to avoid the once all-consuming stench of being a “box office bomb” by benefitting from a splashy premiere on a streamer just a few weeks after its poor theatrical premiere (similar to how The Banshees of Inisherin, Bones and All, The Fabelmans, and She Said are all headed to PVOD in two weeks), where the fact that it played in theaters at all differentiates it from the chaos of all other “content” on a service’s homepage. CODA arrived on Apple TV+ with additional cinematic “sheen” for being once positioned as a theatrical offering. Warner Bros. may have killed King Richard’s chances at the domestic box office by debuting it in theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously (a plan which has since been amended, with most movies now waiting at least 45 days before making their way onto a streaming service following a theatrical release) and similarly dinged Dune a bit, but the fact that the former was a biopic made for the big-screen starring one of our last old-fashioned “movie stars” and the latter was a bombastic blockbuster with big-budget production values still set them apart from other pictures to pick from on the service and made them two of the most widely watched awards contenders last season, as a result of this increased availability.
Yes, box office will always be a part of the conversation surrounding an awards contender – it won’t ever be dismissed entirely – but we could be entering a time in which it no longer hurts Oscar hopefuls but can only help them. For example, the films that do do well – like Dune last year, and Top Gun: Maverick, Elvis, and Everything Everywhere All at Once this year – will be able to campaign as “the people’s choice” (i.e. the films “real people” actually saw), as could Netflix’s Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, which completed its one-week exclusive theatrical run in around 600 North American theaters this Tuesday and is said to have grossed $15 million, which comes out to a commendable $19,000 per theater average (even if it could’ve made even more had they kept it around a little bit longer). Now, these four films will enter the race with a bit more cultural cachet than the rest of their competition.
For the films that don’t do well, awards strategists will simply have to get more creative with their campaigns, by continuing to widen a film’s availability to all with streaming (instead of just screeners) to keep the conversation going, digging deeper for baitier awards angles (Tammy Faye leaned into Jessica Chastain’s overdue narrative, as well as her towering transformation into the titular Tammy Faye Bakker thanks to the film’s talented hair and makeup team, who also won Oscars for their work), or spending a little more money (Apple is said to have poured $10 million into their CODA campaign) in order to convince awards voters to give them the time of day. Some films will survive solely because of the cast and crew involved – The Fabelmans will be fine no matter what, because it’s the “new Steven Spielberg movie,” starring the likes of Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, and more. Others may have more of an uphill battle, but it’s not nearly as impossible to bounce back from bad box office as it once was.
She Said, despite the current “stink” surrounding it caused by its admittedly worrying opening weekend, is still a film that (seemingly successfully) speaks to a story and movement everyone in the industry will be familiar with, and is thus still likely to get eyeballs on itself for those who want to see what this “#MeToo movie” (a dismissive description sure, but one that has stuck) is all about. Films like The Banshees of Inisherin and TÁR will receive tons of publicity in the coming weeks and months thanks to the countless critical accolades that are about to roll in, given that they’re two of the most acclaimed movies of the year. The Bones and All team can be strategic and target certain awards bodies – in certain categories – where they believe the film will play the best (SAG for Mark Rylance’s spine-chilling supporting turn? WGA for David Kajganich’s audacious adapted screenplay?) in order to nab some noms. And on and on and on.
We’re living in a changing world, and it is undeniably upsetting to see mainstream audiences so uninterested in art that doesn’t come costumed in spandex anymore. But, no matter what clickbait-y headlines from the trades try to say, awards contenders performing poorly at the box office is no longer the kiss of death – it’s the new normal. And when a film can win Best Picture with almost no domestic box office returns to speak of, all bets are off.