It feels like Hollywood has been stuck in a sustained state of anxiety over box office numbers ever since theaters reopened nationally in 2021. Every time a new expensive feature debuts to a disappointing opening weekend and fails to reach expectations, pundits and Hollywood insiders share theories as to why this is happening, while lamenting the direction the industry is headed in. These conversations have been incredibly prevalent in 2022, so it’s fitting that we found ourselves having one last bomb to talk about right before we turn our calendars to a new year. “What happened to Damien Chazzelle’s Babylon?” was the question many people were asking after the film, which reportedly needs to earn around $250 million to make a profit, failed to reach even the $5 million mark over the holiday weekend. Naturally, this question has elicited a wide variety of responses on social media, and elsewhere, over the past week.
Many people were quick to blame the film’s subject matter, seeing it as another inside-Hollywood story that was destined to repel audiences like so many others had before it. Some saw it as nothing more than a continuation of mainstream audience’s lack of interest in original, non-IP driven films. Others simply believed it failed because it was a bad movie, while I wholeheartedly disagree with that take, I do think it’s fair to say that the mostly lukewarm reaction from critics certainly didn’t help Babylon‘s chances at the box office. Then there were the answers that held a lot of merit, but just didn’t sound good in a tweet meant to either roast the film and/or contribute to the collective panic in regards to the current state of the film industry. These answers included the extreme weather conditions around the country this weekend, the fact that Christmas Eve and Christmas fell on a Saturday and Sunday this year, and the rising concerns about COVID, RSV, and the flu. While I have no issue with any of these reasonings being brought up in the conversation surrounding Babylon, I do have one issue with the conversation itself.
Much like the conversations which have surrounded a plethora of other box office flops over the past few years, the discourse around Babylon starts with one simple idea: Audiences chose not to see this movie. It seems like a pretty obvious idea—the movie did not make a lot of money, which must mean that moviegoers did not want to see the movie. Makes a lot of sense, right? Well, as foolish as it may sound, I don’t think this idea is totally accurate. My dismissal of this idea hinges on my belief that you can’t say people chose to reject something, if they aren’t even really aware of the thing they’re supposedly rejecting.
My question to people who believe that audiences made a choice not to see this film would simply be this, does the average consumer of entertainment in 2022 even know what Babylon is? Sure, they may have seen the trailer on television or walked by a billboard advertisement, but do they know what the film is about? The answers to these questions are no, and that is where a lot of these box office problems really start.
The inherent problem with these box office conversations is they’re being framed by people whose job it is to follow, and report on, films and the entertainment industry. And sometimes it feels like those people forget that they have a much higher awareness of these films than the average person who maybe goes to the theater 10 times a year does. That is why it can be difficult to accept the idea that these films are being rejected by mainstream audiences based on things like subject matter. Movies like Babylon and The Fabelmans, which also debuted to modest box office returns recently, aren’t failing because millions of people are loading up their Fandango app on a Friday night, seeing what movies are playing near them, doing some research on them, and then saying “nah, don’t want to see that.” They’re failing because the average person walking down the street has no idea what the fuck they even are to begin with.
It’s no secret that people have a lot of different options when it comes to entertainment nowadays. This is why it is more imperative than ever to make audiences aware of what they are buying if you want them to leave their houses to watch something. And that is why the marketing of these films needs to be addressed more when dissecting the reasonings for their failures at the box office.
Admittedly, anecdotal evidence is an incredibly flawed thing to base an argument on—and with that being said, here’s some anecdotal evidence to back up my claims. On multiple instances, before Babylon was released, I had people ask me what “that movie” was even about. If you look back at the way the movie was being marketed, it’s not hard to see why people were confused. I understand average moviegoers—who had maybe seen the poster on the wall of their local movie theater, or the trailer once when it played before their screening of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever—not really having an understanding of what Paramount was attempting to sell them. The rejection of this film, like so many others before it, was not an active choice by these moviegoers though, it was a passive one.
I’m not attempting to claim that the aforementioned abundance of entertainment options available to people hasn’t led to an unfortunate reality for the film industry where box office numbers are somewhat destined to diminish as time goes on. However, it’s fair to point out that there are still plenty of ways that studios are missing the mark when it comes to marketing their films to today’s audiences. For example, we’ve seen this year that the attempt to market a movie as “It certainly is a wild and crazy ride!,” while hiding the actual plot from audiences, doesn’t really work anymore. This is what plagued Babylon, as well as another Margot Robbie led project from 2022, Amsterdam. Whereas in past decades, studios could market a film by just throwing a couple of movie stars on a poster, nowadays, people need to have an understanding of the story that they’re potentially going to see if studios want to earn their money.
There are those out there who maintain that, regardless of marketing or anything else, people just won’t show up to theaters to see original stories in this IP dominated cultural landscape we are living in today. While I agree it is difficult to get people to leave their homes in order to see something completely new and original, my issue with these arguments is they solely focus on the lack of interest from the public, rather than the equally problematic lack of knowledge.
The fact is, we have seen completely original movies released in recent years that have gone on to make a lot of money. While these successes can be attributed to a lot of things, the idea that audiences knew—at least in part—what they were signing up for when they bought a ticket definitely had something to do with them. To prove this point, let’s take a trip back to a year that I deem to be the second best film year of the century, 2019. Here are some original stories from 2019 that made over $100 million at the domestic box office: Hustlers, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, Knives Out, Ford v Ferrari, Us, 1917. (Disclaimer: I understand that technically Hustlers was based on a magazine article, but for the purposes of this conversation, I believe it can be considered an original story as it was not based on any sort of existing Hollywood IP.) Additionally, Jojo Rabbit, Uncut Gems, Parasite, Good Boys, Midsommar, and Yesterday were all profitable movies that did well at the box office. That is 12 solid examples of films that help disprove the idea that modern audiences have no interest in original stories.
In 2019, there was a general awareness of these films that just doesn’t seem to exist with many of the original films that were released in 2022. Audiences had an idea of what they were getting when they saw the trailer for, and heard the title of, Ford v Ferrari; while they didn’t know many details of the plot, they knew Once Upon A Time in Hollywood somewhat dealt with the Manson murders; they understood the premise of Yesterday; they were aware of what kind of movie they were getting with Hustlers; they were informed on the innovative way 1917 was shot. Moviegoers had a much greater cognizance of these films than they did for many financially disappointing 2022 releases such as See How They Run, The Fabelmans, Amsterdam, Ambulance, Tár, She Said, Three Thousand Years of Longing, Crimes of the Future, Strange World, and of course Babylon. It’s important to note I’m not saying all of these films succeeded or failed based on their marketing alone. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to examine the types of original stories Hollywood was able to make profitable just three years ago in contrast to what they can’t seem to make profitable today.
The 2019 film that is especially worth focusing on is Knives Out. It is the perfect example of an original story that not only was an entertaining and well-made film, but gave audiences something that they were unaware that they wanted. Being able to present audiences with something they did not ask for, but still inherently desire, is a rare skill—and the key to making original stories profitable at the theater nowadays. When Knives Out was being made, there were not a lot of whodunit style films dominating the American box office, but ultimately that didn’t matter. Rian Johnson executed his vision and the film was sold to audiences in a way that intrigued them enough to show up to the cinema. It became a hit. And the irony of it all is this film that I’m praising for being a great example of original storytelling reaching wide audiences, has now become the catalyst for one of the more successful non-superhero related franchises, and one of the most valuable pieces of IP in Hollywood, after the success of Glass Onion. That’s showbiz, baby.
It’s worth acknowledging that there were some original films released this year that did make money. Films like Nope, Everything Everywhere All At Once, Smile, Dog, and The Lost City all did well at the box office, to varying degrees. Sadly though, the list isn’t much longer than that. It’s also worth acknowledging that there are some things that are just never going to be mainstream hits. For as much as I love Tár, that is not a movie that is going to be a massive financial success in 2022, which is unfortunate because it would be really fucking fun if it was.
I understand we still live in a reality where a lot of great, interesting, and inventive pieces of art are not going to be widely seen by the public. However, I’m confident that if studios strived to find better ways to market their films to the masses, and actually told people what their movies were about in the lead up to their releases, we wouldn’t see as many box office bombs as we do today. Of course, the solution is not to give away the plot of every movie in the trailer. But clearly something needs to change, because it feels like a lot of studios are still marketing their films like we’re living in the ’90s, and that just isn’t working. I’m willing to admit that people might not show up to these films regardless—maybe that’s just the world we live in nowadays—but studios should at least find ways to give people the information and awareness needed to properly make that decision for themselves.