The Northman was one of 2022’s most prominent box office flops – but, one year on, it’s made Focus Features a tidy sum. What went so wrong with the initial release, and does this offer a ray of light for mid-budget movies outside the cinema?
When a major studio gave Robert Eggers – the man who may have made Willem Dafoe record his own farts for The Lighthouse, somewhere between $70-90 million to make a blockbuster Viking revenge movie – it’s hard to imagine anyone thought it would get as much mainstream appeal as that budget would need to make a profit.
And though The Northman is probably Eggers’ most accessible film to date, with a star-studded cast and enough brutal action sequences to keep your most avid berserker happy, whether it would prove economically viable in a post-pandemic cinema landscape was another matter entirely. As a theoretically marketable auteur blockbuster, through no fault of its own the film soon became a bit of bellwether for the health of the cinema industry before its release.
But when the time came for Amleth to start his murderous journey into cinemas last April, he seemed to get a little lost at sea.
In the UK in particular, audiences were still recovering from a difficult, Covid-inflected winter, with cinema attendance struggling to climb back up for anything smaller than the latest Spider-Man.
Add that to fierce competition from Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore and Nicolas Cage-headlined The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, which respectively tore chunks out of the blockbuster and adult counter-programming markets, things weren’t looking good.
Oh, and the New York subway poster fiasco, where posters cropped up across the big apple without the film’s name on them, won’t have helped, either.
So, when Focus Features and Universal announced The Northman would conclude its theatrical run and jump straight onto Video on Demand from Friday 13th (uh oh) of May, having reclaimed roughly $69.6 million of its hefty original budget, the film’s accountants would have been forgiven for letting out a big sigh, and putting a great red cross in their big book of numbers.
But The Northman’s story doesn’t end there. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter later last year, Focus Features’ head of acquisitions, Kiska Higgs, revealed that The Northman’s strong performance on VoD meant it had actually made them a tidy sum when all’s said and done.
Now, studios are historically cagey about releasing the actual numbers for VoD and streaming, but assuming films still need to make around twice their budget back in order to break even (appreciating that distribution costs for VoD are cheaper, and the marketing bill lower), that means The Northman could have made something in the region of $70-$90 million from premium streaming options alone.
That’s big news for an industry terrified by a collapsed theatrical market. If a high-profile ‘flop’ can still make over $70 million on an at-home release, handing big budgets over to talented but less commercially-minded auteurs suddenly becomes much less of a gamble.
Counter-intuitively, it might end up being good news for cinemas too. It’s become pretty well-documented in recent years that films released straight-to-streaming attract smaller audiences than those sent out to cinemas first – even if the theatrical release ends up losing money. Perhaps it’s a hangover from the TV movies of yesteryear, but unless they’ve seen a poster for a film outside the local multiplex, it seems audiences just don’t consider most streaming offerings to be ‘proper’ films.
Combined with The Northman’s newfound success, maybe things aren’t as bleak over in the Hollywood Hills as we might have thought. If the theatrical-to-streaming option can remain viable even in a Covid-decimated landscape, as cinema attendance continues to rise in 2023, we might be about to enter a new era of movie-profitability. And if that means we get more films like The Northman, that’s certainly no bad thing.
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