Prestigious but not profitable: Some of the year’s best films have struggled to find an audience

she said box office

Carey Mulligan, left, and Zoe Kazan in “She Said.”

Are the movies getting too smart for their own good?

For any film fan who has loudly protested the never-ending parade of flashy superhero flicks and dumb grab-the-cash sequels, the charge may seem ludicrous. But it’s one Variety seemed to make on Nov. 20, with a story headlined ” ‘She Said’ Bombs: Why Aren’t Awards Season Movies Resonating With Audiences?”

The article was pegged to opening numbers for the new movie about dogged journalists uncovering the Harvey Weinstein scandal. “She Said” opened in 2,000 theaters — and made a little more than $2 million over the weekend, or about $1,000 per screen. (By comparison, on its opening weekend “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” made roughly $24,000 per screen.)

Smart, well-acted and favorably reviewed, “She Said” had everything — except an audience. “One of the worst results for a major studio release in history,” according to Variety.

Of course, no one expected a film about two journalists to do superhero numbers. But $2 million was roughly half of what even guarded experts were predicting. And when Variety widened its angle, to check the box office of other pictures positioned for Oscar runs, the landscape wasn’t pretty.

Cate Blanchett in “Tár.”

“Tár,” the Cate Blanchett drama about a conductor, has only made $4.9 million after nearly two months in theaters. “Armageddon Time,” a coming-of-age story with Anthony Hopkins and Anne Hathaway released last month, has yet to clear $2 million. The biggest recent “hit” of the awards season is the civil rights story “Till” — and that only has made $8 million since its September release.

Studio heads are disappointed, confused — and undoubtedly a little angry. Audiences complain that movies aren’t being made for grownups anymore. And then when they are … they don’t go. Why even bother?

But that’s the wrong lesson to take from this, and a destructive one.

The plain truth is that most of these movies were always going to be hard sells. Did moviegoers really want to spend $15 to live through the ugly details of Weinstein’s crimes again? Or gruesome memories of Emmett Till’s murder? Both pictures found moments of inspiration and empowerment in real-life stories, but audiences looking for a Saturday night movie had little way of knowing that in advance.

Making these movies even less essential to ticket buyers? Their casts. Movie stars can’t single-handedly turn a film into a hit, but they can bring in dedicated fans for that all-important opening weekend. And if the movie is halfway decent, those fans’ enthusiasm results in great word-of-mouth — and other people showing up for a solid second weekend, and perhaps a third.

But big names were in short supply in these pictures.

Newspaper movies may not be very popular anymore — hell, newspapers aren’t very popular anymore — but you can still sell one if you have stars. “The Post” had Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. “Spotlight” had Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton. “All the President’s Men” had Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.

And “She Said” has Zoe Kazan and Carey Mulligan.

That’s not an insult. I’ve never seen either of those women do anything less than superb work, and they’re terrific in this. But while their skills are stellar, they are not movie stars. Had the producers cast, say, Brie Larson and Jennifer Lawrence in the roles — both excellent actresses, but also bigger names — things might have looked different.

ANNE JOYCE/FOCUS FEATURES

Banks Repeta and Anthony Hopkins in “Armageddon Time.”

Names alone can’t ensure a hit, of course. Oscar winners Hathaway and Hopkins were cast in supporting roles in “Armageddon Time,” and helped give the film a somewhat higher profile. But the movie’s lead is little known child actor Banks Repeta, and the story revolves around a year in a young boy’s life in 1980 Queens. Add in a downbeat ending, and the film’s failure to draw large audiences is understandable.

So what’s the answer? To only cast big stars? To make sure even serious dramas have happy endings?

No.

But the first helpful thing would be to remember that “prestigious” and “popular” don’t have to be antonyms. The Oscars used to honor star-driven hits with clear-cut stories; pictures like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Braveheart” and “Gladiator” minted gold at the box office and the annual awards ceremony. Over the last 20 years or so, however, the Academy has tended to honor smaller, more challenging movies like “Birdman,” “Moonlight” and “Nomadland.” And studios have courted that by pinning their Oscar hopes on similar films with elliptical plots and ambiguous endings.

The result? A lot of movies that may play well to jaded critics and trendy Academy voters — but often alienate mass audiences, who simply stay away.

Margot Robbie in the upcoming “Babylon.”

Of course there is, and always should be, a place in the mix for a challenging movie like “Tár” (and Blanchett’s highly praised performance). But it’s silly to gamble everything on a difficult, even divisive movie and then be surprised when the crowds don’t come. If you’re going to go out on an aesthetic limb, at least make sure you’ve bought some box-office insurance. The upcoming “Babylon,” for example, is a dazzling, go-for-broke, not-for-all-tastes epic. But it also stars a charming Brad Pitt and sexy Margot Robbie. Its opening weekend, at least, is probably safe.

The second helpful thing would be to keep an eye on budgets, and expectations. (The first helps set the second.) “She Said” cost $32 million, actually considered low by studio standards; the old rule-of-thumb, however, is that a Hollywood film needs to make about three times its budget before it begins to show a profit. Which means the executives who approved those costs knew the movie would have to bring in more than $100 million — with little of that coming from foreign markets where topical American stories are even less likely to draw crowds.

Number of dramas that made $100 million last year, domestically? Zero. The closest any “serious” movie came was “House of Gucci,” which made roughly half that — and that was with Lady Gaga in the cast. (It did much better abroad, however.)

Of course if, “She Said” hadn’t cost $32 million, it wouldn’t have to clear that impossible $100 million hurdle — and its opening wouldn’t have been the nearly preordained disaster it was. Or if it had been the personal passion project of one big star — one also willing to work for scale — that might have added a little bump to the box office. But it did, and it wasn’t, and this was the result.

So what can Hollywood learn from all this?

The best thing, from an artistic point of view, is to still keep making movies they believe in and telling stories they want to tell. (Both “She Said” and “Armageddon Time” are well worth seeing, and likely to end up on my Top 10 list this year.) But if you’re a studio executive expecting your artistic achievements to be big commercial successes, too, be sure that you have some solid commercial hooks. And if you don’t, adjust the budget — and your expectations — accordingly.

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