‘Fabelmans’ Fumble Points to Box-Office Blues for Prestige Films

For someone whose filmography has been fundamental to forming the modern blockbuster, it’s a foreboding twist that Steven Spielberg’s own ode to cinema is a dud at the box office.

A semiautobiographical examination of what fostered Spielberg’s love for movies and a desire to create his own, Universal’s “The Fabelmans” was no match in the holiday window for steep competition including “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” which released Nov. 11. Initially released in just a handful of theaters before expanding to a Nov. 23 wide release, “Fablemans” amassed less than 3% of the weekend box office and finished the holiday break with under $4 million cumulatively.

Disney Animation’s “Strange World,” Sony war drama “Devotion,” Searchlight thriller “The Menu” and DC Entertainment’s “Black Adam” — in its sixth week of release — all outperformed “Fabelmans.”

Unfortunately, Spielberg is just the latest prestige film this year to underperform. If you’re thinking “Fabelmans” was further jeopardized by releasing alongside Universal slate sibling “She Said,” a retelling of the investigation into Harvey Weinstein’s misconduct, that’s not the case. “Said” saw roughly half the turnout of “Fabelmans” over the long weekend following its Nov. 18 bow.

Luca Guadagnino’s new cannibal romance “Bones and All” from MGM is performing only slightly better than his last horror outing, 2018’s “Suspiria,” despite his reteaming with star Timothée Chalamet, whose breakout role came by way of Guadagnino’s “Call Me by Your Name” for Sony Pictures Classics in 2017. “Name” made almost $20 million domestically and double that worldwide.

Other specialty distributor titles like Orion’s “Till” and Focus Features’ “Tár” didn’t fare much better despite critical acclaim, having failed to pass $10 million domestically. The only real outlier has been Searchlight’s “The Menu,” a fine-dining thriller whose $20 million domestic haul is to the crop of high-brow films as horror and thriller efforts like “Nope” and “Smile” have been to studio slates this year.

The holiday window from late November to the end of the year has always been popular for awards hopefuls. Damien Chazelle’s 2016 Hollywood musical “La La Land” released in December of that year and went on to gross $150 million domestically and just under $450 million globally.

That film proved that word-of-mouth interest accrued during limited releases could generate enough hype for films of that caliber to soar after their wide releases, or at the very least attract modest enough turnout to turn a profit.

Even if film exhibition isn’t what it used to be before the pandemic, there are non-franchise films that have been able to thrive, making it all the more strange that Spielberg is being left on the sidelines.

As seen with Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” flashy biopics still seem to have a strong place at the movies. Otherwise, standalone films that stand out from franchise fare tend to hover around the horror and thriller spaces (Jordan Peele’s “Nope,” Paramount’s “Smile,” Universal’s “The Black Phone”) while actioners led by A-list talent (Brad Pitt in “Bullet Train,” Viola Davis in “The Woman King”) can also do well, as do romcoms also stacked with notable actors, such as “The Lost City,” in which Pitt joined leads Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum.

Then there’s A24’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” a word-of-mouth hit that quickly became the arthouse distributor’s top-grossing film ever.

Film exhibitors did have to contend with the start of the 2022 FIFA World Cup just before the long weekend kicked off. 2022’s Thanksgiving 3-day finished just below the 2021 equivalent, and both periods comprise just half of what the box office pulled in during the same window in 2019, which was dominated by “Frozen 2” and “Knives Out.”

Even compared to his previous films, Spielberg underperformed with “Fabelmans.” His “West Side Story” remake for 20th Century already saw an underwhelming response from theatergoers willing to dodge the webs slung by Marvel’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home” when the two films shared a December 2021 holiday window together. That said, “West Side Story” opened to more than $10 million and finished at just under $40 million domestically and a re-release of Spielberg’s classic “Jaws” net $5 million in September, per Comscore.

If the box office can grant surprise-hit status to newer directors as Spielberg sees interest in his films falter, all while other longtime mainstays like Martin Scorsese turn to Apple to fund their endeavors, it’s possible this outcome is simply generational.

As much as people who grew up on Spielberg may feel the same nostalgia that propelled him to make “The Fabelmans,” it’s got to be hard to talk their own kids out of catching the current Marvel craze to give Spielberg a chance instead, especially when holiday box-office windows like Thanksgiving are reliant on group outings dictated by compromise and the likes of Disney ensuring Marvel and family films are always present.

That said, Spielberg’s film will still be debuting internationally in many markets in the months to come. And given the new order of shortened theatrical windows, word-of-mouth is just as useful for those figuring out what to watch at home.

The next prestige film that will face a stiff test this year is director Chazelle’s “Babylon” for Paramount. The star-studded ode to Old Hollywood will run against “Avatar: Way of the Water” during the December holiday.

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