Adult films (not that sort) and the box office: are we set for a repeat of 2021?

Cinema box office
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With Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans the latest adult-targeting drama to stumble at the box office, is 2021 repeating itself in cinemas?


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If you recall, it was just over a year ago that director Ridley Scott was in a bit of a bad mood.

His R-rated historical drama The Last Duel had collapsed without much trace at the box office, and Ridley was not happy about it, famously blaming “the audiences who were brought up on these (‘clucking’ – Ed) cellphones”. It was one of a bunch of adult-skewing dramas (again, not like that) that came along and failed to secure an audience. Perhaps most surprising was King Richard, that even before Will Smith did what Will Smith did was a film whose box office performance had overtaken the story of the movie itself.

The thinking by the end of 2021 was that the audience who traditionally went along to see films aimed at an older crowd wasn’t going back to cinemas. Sure, we had a fresh variant of Covid doing the rounds at the time, which didn’t help. But any sense that it was cinema itself that people were fearing was decimated to a degree by the box office performance of Venom: Let There Be Carnage and in particular Spider-Man: No Way Home. Youngsters were back, clearly. But where was the older audience?

Still, there was a lifeline. No doubt leading to happier party games in the Scott household last Christmas, Ridley’s next movie – the peerless House Of Gucci – duly delivered in cinemas, and the conversations about more mature fare died down for a bit.

Yet there remains a residual fear that audiences are still splitting up the films that they’d watch in a cinema, and the movies that they knew damn well would be on streaming soon. So why not wait, they figure. We’ve got nice tellies now.

Looking at how things are panning out this year, that residual fear may still be being realised.

The Fabelmans

The Fabelmans

Just looking at the US box office chart at the point this piece is being written, and it’s Steven Spielberg’s charming The Fabelmans – that we don’t get in the UK until the of January – that’s struggling. With just under $8m taken after five weeks on release, Universal is putting the film out on video on demand in the US this week, hoping to get more eyeballs on it in time for its awards run. It followed a similar path with James Gray’s equally personal Armageddon Time, another drama that came indirectly out of lockdown, and another that it’s fast-tracking to home formats.

It’s not just the personal stuff either. The hugely acclaimed The Banshees Of Inisherin has topped out just shy of $10m in the US after eight weeks, and will be on Disney+ this side of Christmas. Sam Mendes’ Empire Of Light – that arrives in UK cinemas in early January – has barely made a dent on American screens after a week, with a low screen average for a platform release. And then there’s She Said, a story superbly told and ripped from the headlines, where just $6m of business has been generated in American cinemas to date.

There are occasional exceptions. The Menu clearly aims older than blockbuster fare, and is cutting through. Nearly $30m of tickets have been sold in America for the low budget drama. Jerry Bruckheimer meanwhile recently told Simon Mayo on the Kermode & Mayo’s Take podcast that the returns he was seeing for 2022’s box office juggernaut Top Gun Maverick suggested it was bringing a more mature audience back to cinemas, many of whom hadn’t ventured inside a multiplex since 2019. Plus, romcom Ticket To Ride has hung around, after being counter-programmed against Black Adam. It’s no monster hit, but Universal will secretly be happy with over $150m worldwide from the film.

Ralph Fiennes and Anya Taylor-Joy in The Menu

The Menu

The problems though are that the market has changed, and on top of that, the market hasn’t settled.

Against Spider-Man last year, there were attempts at counter-programming smaller films, but none stuck. Tellingly, when James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way Of Water floods onto screens at the end of the week, nobody’s making the same mistake.

In the UK, we’ve had instances of 15-20 films opening in any one week over the last years. This Friday? Just one other film is coming out, and willing to brave the Avatar onslaught (Nutcracker And The Magic Flute, seeing as you asked) and nothing else arrives from a major studio in ten days. When it does, it’s something very different: Sony’s Whitney Houston biopic I Wanna Dance With Somebody. Everyone else has packed up, and won’t be back until 2023.

Why? Well, the falls are becoming too great again, and the risks too risky. Even the protective shield of an awards run is proving of limited resistance to post-lockdown cinema. The Whale is expected to be picking up its fair share of gong nods over the coming weeks, but it’s anyone’s guess now whether that’ll translate to box office green. Previously, there was a path to at least $20-30m of takings in UK cinemas.

Ironically, the distributors pumping out the higher profile adult-targeting movies now are the very streamers that many suggest helped undercut the market in the first place. Glass Onion: A Knives Out Story was a success in cinemas for a reluctant Netflix, whilst movies such as White Noise and Nanny have had a run on the big screen too.

Perhaps, too, it’s a time of year thing. A24 is behind The Whale, and its savvy approach to promotion may yet yield it another hit. Look how it cleverly programmed and grew Everything Everywhere All At Once earlier in the year, away from the cold winter nights.

Everything Everywhere All At Once

Everything Everywhere All At Once

Which brings us onto another point. The general school of thought is that slow roll-out platform releases have barely worked this year (arguably Everything Everywhere All At Once owed success to both the film, and being programmed perfectly against Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness), and that’s why studios are opening films that need far more careful curation than they’re getting on a ton of screens at once.

This is what’s said to have caused the failure of She Said for instance at the US box office. Did it need to open on ten to 20 screens, build up word of mouth, and then try and attract a broader audience? Well, that’s not what happened. Universal went straight for a 2000 screen release in America, and was rewarded with an opening weekend that just crawled over $2m. Conversely, the fact that Empire Of Light is struggling already with a slower release suggests a bit of William Goldman’s nobody knows anything about all of this. A24 is next to step up, as it slowly nurtures The Whale to wide release.

Thankfully, most studios aren’t giving up. The films at the very least are still coming, and there are signs of a path to breaking even off a cinema run, It’s thus perhaps not quite as drastic a situation as it all looked last year, but it’s clear there are many problems still to be solved here. It’s still a tougher crapshoot than before when launching anything other than blockbuster films into wide distribution, and 2022 hasn’t massively cleared the waters.

Still, next year’s not stopping others – thankfully – from trying to do something other than PG-13 blockbusters. And heading up the queue? That’d be Ridley Scott, and his Apple-backed Napoleon movie.

If that doesn’t do well? For those bastard millenials, there’ll be hell to pay…

Lead image: BigStock

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