While “Avatar: The Way of Water” is getting most of the box office attention with its meteoric holiday run in theaters, it’s time to address the defecating elephant in the room: Paramount’s box office bust “Babylon.”
After spending all of 2022 putting out multiple box office hits from different genres and budget levels — including the $1.48 billion “Top Gun: Maverick” — Paramount took a roll of the dice on Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle’s $78 million dramedy set in 1920s Hollywood. As general audiences rushed to “Avatar 2” and families have trickled in to “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” “Babylon” has accrued an anemic $11 million domestic box office total after two weekends in theaters.
Sporting a three-hour runtime, “Babylon” follows party girl Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) and Mexican immigrant Manuel “Manny” Torres through their rise to silent film starlet and movie studio executive and their subsequent fall as the advent of sound in movies causes the industry to leave them behind. The film also follows sideplots involving Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), another silent film star who can’t make the jump to the “talkies” and Black jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer, whose own rise to stardom is interrupted when he’s forced to wear blackface makeup at the demand of studio execs.
The film, described by Chazelle as “a hate letter to Hollywood, but a love letter to cinema,” has earned multiple Golden Globe and Critics Choice Awards nominations and is still a contender for a Best Picture nomination, but critics and audiences have been polarized by the film’s raunchy depiction of Hollywood’s early years. Along with the aforementioned elephant dung, “Babylon” also features golden showers, Margot Robbie projectile vomiting and getting bitten by a snake, and plenty of cocaine-fueled antics.
While its wild imagery and its devotion to chronicling an early, turbulent chapter in cinema history may very well make it a future cult film among cinephiles and film school students, it has clearly alienated many others with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 55% critics and 49% audience. It also got a C+ from opening night moviegoers on CinemaScore, standing as the only holiday wide release on the audience poll to fail to earn an A.
Perhaps that’s a sign that “Babylon” was always going to fail to gain the mainstream audience needed to turn a profit on its budget level no matter what, but it’s likely that the marketing didn’t help either. The film’s trailers, along with most of the television and digital marketing, focused primarily on footage of Robbie and Pitt dancing and drinking in the film’s wild parties and film shoots, hyping the film as an insane spectacle that must be seen on the big screen.
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It’s a sound strategy in theory. A major reason why some Oscar contenders like “The Fabelmans,” “The Banshees of Inisherin” and “Tár” have struggled to make money at the box office is because their nature as small-scale dramas and tragicomedies don’t lend themselves to the big screen experience. As films like “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once” have shown, moviegoers value larger-than-life spectacle when they go to theaters even more than they did before the pandemic, so it would make sense for Paramount to try to show moviegoers that “Babylon” would check off that box.
But what the trailers didn’t convey as much was the story. At its core, the plot of “Babylon” is simple enough: a story of the rise and fall of several Hollywood stars and big shots. It’s “A Star Is Born” with more drugs, alcohol, murder and bodily fluids, but only the R-rated stuff is conveyed in the marketing. As seen with films from “Blade Runner 2049” to “Lightyear,” a common problem with box office flops is that audiences don’t know what the story is about, which kills interest in buying a ticket regardless of the word-of-mouth.
Insiders at Paramount have told TheWrap that the studio is waiting until “Babylon” is released overseas later this month before execs begin examining what went wrong on this film. With “Avatar 2” likely to still provide stiff holdover competition in Europe, “Babylon” probably won’t make enough internationally to break even.
That would mean that “Babylon” is going to take a chunk out of the theatrical windfall that Paramount scored last year with more than $1.3 billion grossed in North America alone. But despite that writedown, there’s still a chance that “Babylon” could be a victory in the long run for Paramount in ways that box office numbers don’t immediately show.
That’s because last month, prior to the release of “Babylon,” Paramount signed a first look deal with Chazelle, keeping the director’s future projects on their backlot. Paramount has franchises like “A Quiet Place,” “Mission: Impossible” and “Transformers” on its slate and is building its family film lineup with “Sonic the Hedgehog” and Nickelodeon Animation projects, but its willingness to drop over $100 million in production and marketing costs on Chazelle’s original, R-rated period film while giving him full creative control is a message to other filmmakers that they are open for business.
If Chazelle’s production deal leads to similar ones with other filmmakers with distinctive voices, Paramount may find itself following a blueprint similar to Universal, which has its own stable of lucrative franchises and studios like “Fast & Furious,” Illumination animated films and Blumhouse horror, but also has long-term partnerships with directors like Jordan Peele and Elizabeth Banks to expand its slate depth.
Building similar slate depth will be key in order for Paramount to keep its strong box office year rolling into 2023 and beyond. In the latter half of the 2010s, Paramount often languished in fifth or sixth place on the studio charts each year, relying on “Mission: Impossible” or a surprise hit like “A Quiet Place” to carry the load.
If Chazelle is the first of many filmmakers to sign first look deals with Paramount, we may soon see a more diverse array of theatrical offerings coming from them. Ideally, some of those fresh projects will bring something more attractive to audiences than the decadence of “Babylon.”