Why Babylon has been a box-office flop

Babylon finally arrives on UK shores this week, but the all-star Hollywood epic is already fighting a losing battle at the box office.

Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to First Man takes him back to the Hollywood of La La Land, albeit one a century earlier. Set in the late 1920s, Babylon chronicles the end of the silent-movie era as various characters adjust to the advent of talkies, some for the better and some definitely for worse.

But while it features the likes of Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Tobey Maguire, Jean Smart and the actual Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers, the star power of the impressive cast has not been enough to save the movie at the US box office.

Ahead of its international rollout, there are reports that Babylon will struggle to break even, unless the overseas markets overperform. So why has the movie been such a box-office flop? Let’s investigate.

margot robbie, babylon

Scott GarfieldParamount

Let’s start with the numbers first, and they don’t make pretty reading. In its opening four-day weekend over Christmas, Babylon made only $4.85 million at the US box office, which was down on the already-low projection of $5.3 million.

There were extenuating circumstances as there were severe winter weather conditions across the US that weekend, but that weekend still saw Avatar: The Way of Water gross $95.6 million across the four-day Christmas weekend.

Rather than rebounding from the soft opening (which marked the lowest-ever wide US opening for Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt), Babylon continued to stumble and after four weeks in play, it stands at $14.83 million after an estimated $620,000 fourth weekend. As Deadline predicted, it seems unlikely to hit $20 million in the US.

There’s hope for the movie in its overseas release as Chazelle’s movies have so far performed better internationally than in the US. La La Land, for instance, made $286.4 million overseas compared to $151.1 million in the US.

However, it’ll have to be some performance to hit the reported $250 million it needs to start making a profit (via Deadline), due to its $80 million production budget and similar marketing budget.

What’s more, Babylon still faces the same issues on its international release as it did on its US release.

jovan adepo, babylon

Scott GarfieldParamount

There’s probably not one specific reason that Babylon just hasn’t drawn the crowds in, and it’s more of a perfect storm.

Leading the way though is a mixed critical response that has it currently at a 55% Rotten Tomatoes rating. The movie held its first screenings in mid-November and social reactions were allowed straight away, usually a sign of confidence to build up hype for the release, but the responses weren’t overwhelmingly positive.

Reactions called it everything from a “sensational celebration of cinema” and “delightfully delicious” to an “ambitious mess” and “one of the worst films of 2022”. This mixed response was reflected in the movie’s C+ CinemaScore following its release in the US, and arguably matched the confused response to the trailer.

The trailers might have done a good job at portraying the debauched party scenes on offer in Babylon, but they didn’t really give a sense of the plot or what the movie was about. More emphasis was put on highlighting the outrageousness, with “Naughty” and “Nice” trailers released, than there was on showing why you should care.

In fairness, that’s quite reflective of Babylon itself where so much is happening and nothing is happening, often at the same time. It’s a sprawling story following multiple characters across a three-hour runtime, offering a feel of late 1920s Hollywood rather than a memorable through-line.

margot robbie, babylon

Scott GarfieldParamount

From the marketing, you’d know it was a movie about Hollywood and that could have been off-putting too. While movies about moviemaking are lapped up by awards bodies and (usually) industry folk, they don’t tend to have mass-market appeal.

Stronger critical acclaim could have led to Babylon overcoming this issue, but over Christmas, US cinemagoers had other choices. Whether it was the juggernaut that is Avatar: The Way of Water or the well-received family offering Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, Babylon just wasn’t able to position itself as a must-see.

Linked into this equation is the fact that audiences nowadays are savvier to how quickly movies are available to watch at home. At the time of writing, Babylon isn’t available to watch at home in the US, but people know that it will be eventually and seemingly are happy to wait.

What could change the picture for the movie is if it picks up some awards buzz, following its five Golden Globes nominations and nine Critics’ Choice nominations. Crucially though, it needs to start winning more if it gets BAFTA and Oscar recognition.

At the Globes, it won one award for Best Original Score (and Justin Hurwitz’s score is definitely the best thing about the movie). At the Critics’ Choice awards, it again only won one award for Best Production Design. It would need wins in bigger categories for the mass audience to pay attention, such as an unlikely Best Picture win.

tobey maguire, babylon

Scott GarfieldParamount

Even before its release, Babylon was seen as a gamble not just for its budget, but also for the runtime and the content. The movie absolutely earns its R rating, with a golden shower in the first ten minutes among other things, but shock value alone doesn’t bring in the crowds.

Damien Chazelle has made the movie he wanted to make which is to be applauded. It’s just that, right now, Babylon hasn’t been the must-see movie that would have made the risky gamble pay off.

Babylon is out now in US cinemas and is released in UK cinemas on January 20.

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