‘The Northman’ Box Office Proves the Danger of Bloated Budgets on Slick Arthouse Films

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Hollywood is often skewered for no longer making large-scale original epics like “The Northman,” director Robert Eggers’ bloody Viking tale about a warrior’s quest to avenge his father’s death.

Yet Focus Features, Universal’s indie label, took a gamble, not only backing “The Northman” but releasing the film in theaters nationwide. Driven by positive reviews, the movie generated $12 million from 3,865 North American theaters over the weekend, enough to secure the No. 4 spot on domestic box office charts. Not bad for an arthouse film, huh?

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Except for the pesky fact that “The Northman” was 10 times as expensive to produce as your average indie. How much the movie actually cost is up for debate; Eggers has been loudly and proudly touting its $90 million production budget in the press, much to the chagrin of its financial investors. They dispute Eggers’ math, privately saying the final figure was closer to $70 million after factoring in tax incentives.

At this point, call it a wash. It’s still a massive amount to spend on a very R-rated medieval Icelandic drama, one that isn’t necessarily intended to appeal to mass audiences. Complicating finances, “The Northman” was heavily advertised through TV spots, as well as billboards plastered in populated areas like Times Square (some of which did not exactly go up as planned). With a massive price tag and mediocre ticket sales, “The Northman” is already looking like a substantial money loser for the studio, as well as a cautionary tale about budgets gone wild.

“In terms of original content, keeping the budget in check is paramount,” says Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “If it goes well, you can spend that money on the sequel.”

Focus Features mitigated the liability by co-producing and co-financing the film with New Regency. But “The Northman” needs to become a runaway sensation in foreign markets to avoid drowning either company in red ink. So far, “The Northman” has collected just $11.5 million from 41 international markets, taking its global tally to $23.5 million.

In North America, box office sages predict “The Northman” will end its theatrical run with $30 million to $40 million. Though critics championed the film, a “B” CinemaScore from ticket buyers means word of mouth will only take it so far. (That’s probably why “The Northman” was released nationwide to start, rather than as a platform release, which is intended to slowly gain traction.)

That reality means the film has a lot of ground to make up internationally. Box office experts estimate “The Northman” has to generate at least $140 million globally to cover its production budget. However, adding in the tens of millions in marketing means a movie like “The Northman” likely needs to make almost $200 million to break even in its theatrical run. In this case, Focus has a little flexibility in its finances because of Universal’s agreement with exhibitors to put movies on digital platforms in as little as 17 days. Expect the company to put “The Northman” on premium video-on-demand and its parent company’s streamer Peacock as soon as legally possible — and then pray to Odin that the movies becomes an instant cult hit.

Artistically, “The Northman” seems to be a triumph, with critics raving about its visual flair and bold vision. Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Björk and Willem Dafoe star in the film, based on the legend of Amleth. (Did Focus executives mistake Amleth as a Marvel character when greenlighting the film with a sky-high budget?) For A.V. Club, critic Tomris Laffly wrote, “Eggers’ immersive approach and stylistic flair creates one wild, applause-worthy combat scene after another, reminding viewers why he’s one of the most unique visual artists working today.” Moreover, “The Northman” proved that Eggers can work within a massive budget, which could be crucial to Universal if the director were interested in overseeing a franchise movie.

Internally, studio executives were thrilled with the film and its critical consensus. But in today’s theatrical landscape, traditional Hollywood players cannot responsibly pump that much into theatrical films, if they want to make money as well as art. With Focus being a small cog in a publicly traded media conglomerate like NBCUniversal, it’s a pretty safe assumption they’re interested in the former, not only the latter. Other studios have successfully taken chances on less-certain commercial prospects, such as Channing Tatum’s road-trip comedy “Dog” ($61 million domestically) and Paramount’s gonzo sequel “Jackass Forever” ($57 million domestically), because they managed to keep the budgets from getting too outsized.

With “The Northman,” Focus Features is not accentuating extraneous details, like the film’s budget or financial results. The studio called this weekend’s result “a success on every level.”

“We’re excited that a film so bold and daring is resonating with audiences around the world,” said Lisa Bunnell, president of domestic distribution for Focus Features. “It’s a towering artistic achievement and a win for us at the company. We have always believed in Robert Eggers’ singular vision as a groundbreaking filmmaker — and are thrilled to be on this ride with him.”

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