Tom Jolliffe looks at Ridley Scott’s recent tirade against Marvel and Millennials after the box office failure of The Last Duel…
It should have been simple right? Ridley Scott delivers a film for Fox (and in essence through Disney) that is heaving with star power. Matt Damon is A-list, if not box office certified predominantly for one significant franchise. Adam Driver is kind of shit hot as an actor right now, effortlessly prancing between franchise, Oscar bait, quirky auteur work and indie films. Jodie Comer comes backed with a rising popularity and the kind of wave you can ride which comes from starring in a popular TV series (Killing Eve). Scott even maintained that there had been nothing wrong with the promotional campaign. Nothing which left him dissatisfied.
Despite the film bringing Scott his best reviews for years, the resulting box office for The Last Duel was thoroughly underwhelming. In some ways it’s a shame. Good films, particularly those that prove that old adage, ‘life in the old dog yet,’ should be suitably rewarded. There’s undoubtedly a willing audience for this kind of picture, but they targeted the wrong type (more on this later). Scott’s focus of ire (as per a few recent interviews, including appearing on Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast) points firmly at the humble millennial. The Riddler has never been shy of shooting from the hip, perennially blunt and honest in sharing his thoughts. In actuality, Ridley, given he’s past 80 now and perhaps not hip, is probably a little wide of the mark in the demographic he feels is responsible. It’s more likely he meant the generation known as Gen-Z. The under 25s (who still dominate the main market share of the box office).
Much of the millennial bracket (which I’m only just still tiptoeing on the older edge of) is still a willing demographic for a Ridley Scott period epic. Likewise, it’s a genre which will primarily attract males, probably predominantly white males. The Last Duel calls out to the over 30 male, most likely to make the trip to the cinema. The under 25 crowd was always going to be irrelevant, and likewise in an era now where the female demographic, and minority demographic matters more than it ever has (rightfully so), there wasn’t a big portion of those demographics interested. Ridley should have known this. Disney/Fox should have known this. When it comes to cinema distribution, no matter how good your bankable cast are, or how impressively constructed and delivered the film is, it was always flogging a dead horse. Ever tried to win a joust on a dead horse?
Do under 25s have low attention spans, permanently glued to their phones? Are they able to give themselves over to a film requiring attention? Well, in that sense their powers of attention are often underappreciated. They can of course do that, but you need to ultimately deliver what is popular, what will sell, or you need to readjust your expectations of what a film like The Last Duel can achieve during a theatrical run, compared to a Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, No Time To Die etc. etc. Ridley will always wholeheartedly stand behind his work, and perhaps this film will prove another late bloomer, but he’s often not quite understood what audiences want in the immediacy. He’s gambled on occasion. Scott’s been ahead of the game quite often. Strong female lead cinema with Thelma and Louise, followed by GI Jane. One worked, and he went to the well again and it didn’t. It wasn’t the first time he went back to the well after something paid off.
Gladiator rejuvenated a dead genre. It came at a point where it almost felt nostalgic. It had been so long since the last show-stopping period epic. A real throwback to the days when studios went all in to make gargantuan epics like Ben-Hur, Spartacus and Cleopatra. Almost excessively grandiose. Gladiator did this, whilst raking in great box office returns, critical acclaim and masses of the top awards. At the time it marked a return to form for Scott, still trying to find the box office touch he recaptured after years of trying, with Thelma and Louise. He’s often flirted with box office glory, but stringing a run of hits has been difficult (probably his immediate run after Gladiator was his best sequence). Scott revisited the epic well to make Kingdom of Heaven, later Robin Hood, neither of which found a great deal of love. In truth sometimes something works because it’s a rare anomaly, or strikes nostalgia. If Saving Private Ryan kicked the war film back into life, it also caused a slew of imitators. Gladiator did the same with the period epic and we were inundated with not only Scott’s follow ups but films like Alexander and Troy. The latter did better box office than critic reception, but it never came to pass that a film did both after Gladiator, nor rarely, either (Alexander was smashed from pillar to post). That 15 year run ended up consigning period epics back to the dark recesses of studio thoughts.
Everything about what audiences have been watching on the big screen pointed to a suggestion that period epics should be made smaller scale, or incorporate more fantasy elements. Furthermore, as we’ve seen with The King on Netflix, the streaming platforms offer a perfect home to film genres which have an audience, but not necessarily one willing to go out and devote 2.5 hours (3 including trailers etc.) in a cinema. A Disney/Fox production has in place a platform willing and able to house The Last Duel, and pull in a good audience, but they opted for a theatrical run always likely to fail at that scale. Additionally all this promotion, the wide release, everything Scott was satisfied with, is ultimately money pissed up the wall. Blaming the audience is also a dangerous game which could lead to active rebellion for some of his future works. Scott as much as anything is wanting to make the films he wants, and relevancy is perhaps a secondary thought.
House of Gucci is out this weekend. It looks bold, glitzy and is likewise loaded with star power. It’s smaller scale than The Last Duel and in no way, shape or form is it likely to be targeted toward the Gen-Z market. Scott in fact probably knows this entirely. The older millennial group, up to the boomers will likely be the ones watching a film that will attract all genders. Biopics tend to be more popular as award contenders, and whether this ends up pulling any in besides costume design remains to be seen, but we’re coming to a generally quiet season where films like this can have a potentially tidy run. Ultimately, it will have a bigger impact on streaming where this kind of film is very popular right now and has that kind of star power that still matters on streaming. In the theatrical realm, concept/franchise is key. Scott has of course bemoaned the impact of comic book heroes, and thus franchise (despite his own attachments to some of his franchise products, Alien particularly).
There is certainly a case that the theatrical experience has changed from being emotionally investing/challenging, to simply having an escapist experience. It’s something cinephiles have to put up with, as the listings for their local multiplex become overrun with spandex cinema. Ridley has a point, Marty, et al, and maybe the popular cinema is being dumbed down, concentrated to a mere intense hit of adrenalin…but what the audience demands, the audience shall get. You either adapt, or find different corners to exist and work in. Scott is looking at TV, which is sensible, but much like Scorsese did with The Irishman (a film that at its cost, would have bombed theatrically), if he’s to take gambles on out of vogue genres, then he should do so with the help of a streaming platform who can release it. Scott should likewise count his blessings, that despite an indifferent relationship with box office, he’s largely had carte blanche throughout his career. Interestingly, Scott is now rumoured to be eyeing a Napoleon film next. Is he about to make the same mistake, or will he and the studio adapt their expectations? Time will tell, but perhaps it’s also time to keep the blame game to himself.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.