Napoleon | Can historical epics save the box office?

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Ridley Scott’s Napoleon fought off Wish and The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes to top the global box office this week – is the historical movie making a comeback?

In a year determined to confuse box office analysts and studio execs the world over, Napoleon just beat a new Disney animation and the second week of a Hunger Games prequel to take the top spot at the international box office with $78.8m (£62.4m) this weekend.

For Apple, the film’s success comes with a few caveats. Scott’s biopic reportedly cost somewhere in the region of $200m to make – based on in-cinema box office alone, Napoleon is still pretty unlikely to make a profit.

But as an incredibly high-profile advert for their streaming service, Napoleon so far seems to be performing exactly as intended. As we saw earlier this year with Martin Scorsese’s similarly-priced Killers Of The Flower Moon, putting bums on cinema seats can no-longer be considered the only metric for a film’s success in the streaming era.

Meanwhile, the similarly historic Oppenheimer made just shy of a billion dollars this summer. Whichever way you slice it, 2023 has been a pretty good year for the cinematic period piece.

This, for much of Hollywood’s history, is nothing new. Basing your movie on historical characters and events (if we’re being cynical for a second) offers a whole bunch of easy marketing. As far as water-cooler pitches go, “it’s the Napoleon movie” is a much easier sell than a completely original offering that needs more than a two-word explanation.

Over the last few years though, as franchise filmmaking has continuously ruled the roost, the historical movie has taken a bit of a back seat. The last historical action movie to break into the global top ten was arguably 300 all the way back in 2007 (in China, films like The Eight Hundred and The Battle At Lake Changjin have done huge numbers in recent years, but scarcely get a release outside the country).

Now, with the tentative success of big-budget, adult historical fare, history seems like a comfortable place for studios to settle back into. With the news that Antoine Fuqua and Denzel Washington are working on a Hannibal movie and Gladiator 2 arriving late next year, it’s certainly possible that swords and muskets could form one of the more reliable money makers in an industry struggling for a predictable stream of income.

Of course, it’s easy to jump to conclusions based on a few outliers – particularly when the success of the streaming-reliant Napoleon and Killers Of The Flower Moon isn’t so easy to judge outright. But, for all the elements working against these films and Oppenheimer (all have 15/R ratings in the UK and the US, and Napoleon is the shortest by some margin at 158 minutes), the fact that all seem to be doing better than analysts expected comes as a very welcome surprise.

While the success of The Super Mario Bros. Movie, Five Nights At Freddy’s and Barbie are sure to have studios reaching for video game and toy licenses, a trio of expensive, adult historical dramas seeing some level of success is sure to be giving movie execs pause for thought. If someone can figure out how to make thrilling, historical action cinema like Napoleon at The Creator's price point, we wouldn’t be surprised to see a few more of these making big box office splashes before the decade is out.

Master And Commander 2, anyone?

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