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The Oscars want crowd-pleasers, but where are the crowds?

There’s just one problem: The crowds are remaining
stubbornly hypothetical.

Just look at “Belfast.” The Kenneth Branagh-directed
family drama, considered a top best-picture contender, has petered out with a
domestic box office gross under $7 million. Best-picture winners usually hail
from far more successful stock. Among recent winners, only last year’s
“Nomadland” made less, and it was released at a time when vaccines were scarce
and theatres were just barely beginning to reopen.

“King Richard” hasn’t fared much better. Though it was
released simultaneously on HBO Max, you’d still expect stronger box office
results for an inspirational drama that stars Will Smith as the father of
tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams. Instead, “King Richard” has made just
$14.7 million in North American theatres, the lowest gross for a Smith movie in
decades.

And then there’s Ridley Scott’s “The Last Duel,” which
feels like it could have been the biggest hit of a bygone Oscar season. This
medieval drama boasts huge stars (including Matt Damon, Adam Driver and Ben
Affleck), weighty themes and top-tier production values. Now that it’s
available on demand, not a day goes by without someone on my Twitter timeline
discovering the film and announcing, “Hey, this is actually pretty good!” Maybe
they’re surprised because “The Last Duel” famously bombed during its wide
release in October, earning only $10.8 million domestically.

It’s true that many of these Oscar contenders are
aimed at older moviegoers, who have proved difficult to lure back to theatres
during a prolonged pandemic. A smaller film like “Belfast” used to debut in a
handful of cities, carefully building word-of-mouth with that core demographic
as it expanded to new theatres every week. Now, distributors are so skittish about
the absence of older audiences that many speciality films are shoved into
hundreds of theatres right off the bat, expected to draw huge crowds from
scratch.

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Still, the underwhelming performance of these movies
can’t be blamed on older moviegoers alone. Over the past few weeks,
“Spider-Man: No Way Home” has earned a staggering $621 million domestically, a
total you simply can’t reach without every available demographic turning out in
record numbers. If older adults are willing to go see “Spider-Man,” it becomes
harder to make the argument that they can’t be wooed at all.

Marvel’s rising tide, though, has not lifted any
boats. Instead, every other title is drowning. Are audiences really so skittish
about seeing the most acclaimed films of the year? Or have these movies simply
struggled to make the case that they’re worth watching?

I believe the latter issue bedevilled “West Side
Story,” which seemed to have so much going for it when it debuted in December.
Directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie received rapturous reviews and is
adapted from one of the most famous stage musicals of all time. Though “West
Side Story” was originally intended to come out last winter, Disney executives
delayed this exhilarating film a full year, expecting a four-quadrant smash.

They didn’t get it. “West Side Story” made just $10.5
million in its opening weekend and has struggled to reach $30 million in its
first month of release. For a movie from Hollywood’s most reliable hitmaker,
that is a disastrous result. You’d have to go all the way back to “Empire of
the Sun” from 1987 to find a Spielberg movie that did this poorly, and that
film didn’t cost north of $100 million, as “West Side Story” did.

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The usual suspects have come in for blame — the
pandemic’s winter surge, the paucity of older moviegoers — but I lay this
failure squarely at the feet of the marketing campaign, which missed crucial
opportunities. The posters for this romantic musical were oddly grim, and the
trailers and TV spots remained way too bashful about selling Spielberg, the
movie’s biggest name. The trailers should have emphasised his iconic films like
“ET the Extra-Terrestrial,” “Jurassic Park” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,”
positioning “West Side Story” as part of an impressive theatrical lineage: The
obvious message being, “Those were events worth leaving the house for and this
will be, too.”

Ultimately, that may prove to be the most significant
lesson of this awards season: If you can’t make your movie feel like a big
event, people simply won’t go. It’s clear that the only film this winter that
has really managed that feat is “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” and because its
astonishing box office returns dwarf everything else in theatres, power players
involved with the Marvel-Sony movie have begun making the case that it should
be nominated for best picture.

Does Spidey have a shot? I’m not so sure. Oscar voters
have shown they’re willing to nominate a big blockbuster, but they prefer the
kind of impeccably crafted tentpole that can compete in a host of categories.
Think of “Black Panther,” which won Oscars for its score, production design and
costumes; or “Mad Max: Fury Road,” which prevailed in just about every tech
category it was nominated for. This year, “Dune” will be a major player in
those below-the-line races, boosting its ultimate bid for best picture, but the
flatly shot “Spider-Man: No Way Home” is more of a storytelling and scheduling
feat than some sort of artistic stunner.

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Still, there’s no denying the movie’s huge box office
success. If adult dramas continue to underperform as the pandemic sprawls into
its third year, they may vanish from cinemas entirely, and the theatrical
experience will simply become a high-end way to watch Marvel movies. The Oscars
are supposed to forestall that sort of thing. They lend buzz to the smaller,
artier films that desperately need it. But if all these nonfranchise
crowd-pleasers can’t manage to entice people into theatres on their own, the
movies have a bigger problem than just another low-rated Oscars show.

©2022 The New York Times Company

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