Tom Jolliffe looks at the disappointing box office returns for The Northman and The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, and the possible implications for cinema…
The box office has been improving of late. We’re getting back to a stage of careful optimism and growth closer to the kind of numbers which films were pulling in pre-pandemic. There is a caveat though. Whilst films like The Batman and Spider-Man: No Way Far From Homecoming (or whatever it was called) are merely regrouping the kind of levels expected of comic book films, we still have the issue of ‘original’ cinema. Okay, originality might be pushing it in many cases. The Northman is an old Norse tale, by way of Hamlet (inspired by such), by way (cinematically) of Conan the Barbarian. However, what it represented was a film of a bygone era which didn’t have a ready rolled, easy to (Avengers) assemble franchise pie it could jump aboard. Elsewhere Nicolas Cage starred as himself in what was part meta comedy, overlaid with a by the numbers spy plot, in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. Both were brilliant, both came with plenty of hype and both came within a budget arena which is pretty rare these days.
The Northman cost in the region of $90 million. There’s been plenty of talk about it being a huge gamble and a massive step up for director Robert Eggers given that The Lighthouse cost relative peanuts. Still, in the modern era, $90 million is chicken feed. Again though, in cinema you have the Marvel/Disney/Sony/DC/Warner tent-pole films which tend to cost comfortably over $150 million apiece give or take. Then a smattering of films under those numbers down to about $1-2 million. Then a large swathe, which generally tend to be straight to indie/streamer/DVD films which cost under that$ 1-2 million bracket. In that big heaving no man’s land between$ 2-150 million you have an arena that’s becoming almost exclusive to studios like A24 and Blumhouse. Of course in world cinema terms, you may look at what Korea offers for example, and the high end is $20-30 million (dollar) budgets. In US terms though, it’s small or massive and not much in the middle.
A great weight of expectation was placed upon The Northman. Eggers is the in thing right now. Among cine-hipsters, he’s got a messianic glow. He’s a step ahead of Ari Aster even. This was to (hopefully) be the kind of film that proved audiences would be willing to go to the cinema and watch a sprawling epic with grand auteur ideas. If Ridley Scott’s disappointment at the mobile phone era rebelling against The Last Duel did anything, it probably foreshadowed this. Still, despite Scott trying and failing, not for the first time, to recapture the success of Gladiator in the epic arena, there was more hope for a younger director who is very much (and very deservedly I might add) in vogue. Still, the box office takings came in, and all told, though the spin was a suggestion that expectations had been readjusted for an era when home takings are now more important than ever, they were disappointing. Trailers, watched by millions, built great buzz and almost universal excitement to those made aware by a strong marketing push (title-less one sheet faux pas aside). A director that mature cinema goers, and proclaimed cineastes love, a film waiting on wide release with huge critical acclaim, and even largely wide audience acclaim too. So what the hell happened?
Much like politics, many have talked the talked, but when it comes down to it sometimes a demographic doesn’t turn out in the numbers it could have and the results reflect that. I’m in Brexit Britain, where the under 30’s were significantly in favour of remaining and the over 50’s the reverse. The older generation turned out in force, and whilst the youngsters had a better than usual turnout, there was still a disappointing turnout in that bracket. The ‘unexpected’ outcome thus won the day, and many a vote averter probably bemoaned the end result. There are of course other factors to consider when it comes to cinema turnout. We’re in a cost of living crisis. Perhaps for adults, going alone to the cinema feels excessive to some or they may prioritise tickets for the kids who will be seeing mainstream films. Still, plenty might bemoan a lack of options on the big screen beyond the Marvel/Disney, without getting that ticket (go on a cheap day. Smuggle your own snacks). These films aren’t going to make enough to entice studios to brave averting franchise/sequels/reboots etc.
For Nicolas Cage, his major theatrical comeback (animation aside) has proved bittersweet. Rave reviews, a lot of attention and a great response from fans. The problem is, the turnout wasn’t close to what the film and Cage deserved. Cage has become massively popular on the internet. He’s almost been accepted by a younger audience who have seen him condensed to memes and highlight reels for his quirkier side. Sadly for Cage, his film came in a place under The Northman, and both were below three kid-tween films (one of which was animated, and two which were well known franchise/IP). Despite a reasonably wide release, a domestic weekend of just of $7 million is disappointing for Cage, even if all told the film may yet turn a profit worldwide (on a $30 million budget). The Northman’s $12.9 million domestic weekend from a $90 million budget probably all but means that home release will be where the film may (hopefully) scrape a profit. Going back too, the recent Michelle Yeoh starrer Everything Everywhere All at Once has also had exceptional reviews. It probably lacked the buzz of these two more high profile films, but under the A24 banner, and topping out on just over 2000 screens in the US (after incrementally rising beyond its few screenings in the first week), it really did deserve more bums on seats. The smallest budget of the three, and by far the most lithe with its marketing (conversely, Northman probably blew a lot on marketing), it’ll do tidy business and come out smiling. Still Michelle Yeoh and the Daniels really deserve more viewers.
Of course this difficult transitional period must be accounted for. We’ve already had a sense some studios are going to take hits here. Will this mean Eggers doesn’t get to go big again? I hope not, given the grand scale and scope of the film of the year so far. Will it matter to Eggers? No, he’s looking to go back to something smaller next in any case, and would probably happily exist in that pocket, but even still…those budgets of $10-15 million, within that sparse middle level, might be under threat too, certainly for films that may be deemed more beneficial as streaming premieres or ‘originals’ for the major platforms. Pre-Covid, there just seemed to be the suggestion that audience turnout was starting to improve for mid level films thanks to a boom in world cinema popularity, A24 and Blumhouse cranking out hits, and John Wick proving that even franchise material could be done sub-$100 million (the franchise shifting from $25, to $40, up to $75 million budgets in the opening three). That brief upsurge with hits like Uncut Gems, Parasite, Hereditary, Get Out, The Farewell and more isn’t being as readily followed post Covid, in part because people are more inclined to wait for home release. The result is, that many of the above which are Curzon (or other more adult marketed cinemas) material, are even finding their slots at the indie/arthouse chains under threat. Even the Curzons of this world are having to place more screen time for the likes of Spider-Man.
The answer is tough, because this is a time when the remake express is promising The Crow, Highlander even inexplicably Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, and the franchise world is going for a tenth Fast movie, loads more Marvel, and another Batman film with Robert Pattinson before we’ve even seen Michael Keaton back as Batman in The Flash. Increasingly Netflix, Amazon and Disney are pumping money into ‘originals’ and films which will bypass theatres entirely. The mid level budget films will effectively become prominent on streaming and closer to non-existent in the multiplexes. To quote the Mando credo, ‘this is the way.’ What effectively might have happened at the box office with The Northman and Unbearable Weight was a death knell to non-franchise, mid-level pictures as a big screen enterprise.
As I’d suspected prior to the release of The Northman and Unbearable Weight, April 22nd saw the arrival of two of the best films of the year, hitting a potential peak in creativity and quality. In terms of out and out enjoyment, certainly Cage’s film will be tough to beat (and I eagerly await Yeoh’s long overdue first Western lead role when it hits the UK this month). How sad then that the box offer returns for both might mean Cage is done as a big screen leading man, and large scale cinema without existing IP could be all but an impossibility. For the cineastes mulling over seeing these, who might be weighing a big screen trip against waiting for streaming… see them on the big screen!! The Northman in particular is made for the theatrical experience.
What are your thoughts on cinema going forward? Will we see a complete monopoly by franchise material in mainstream cinemas? Let us know your thoughts on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
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 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…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/