Why Good Films Are Failing at the Box Office in Awards Season

Burnt Why Good Film Fail at
Courtesy of The Weinstein Co.

The other day I found myself sitting in a movie theater watching Bradley Cooper skillfully orchestrate a gourmet dinner. And I was getting hungry.

I was also getting curious. I was alone in the theater watching a new movie called “Burnt,” starring Cooper and Sienna Miller as expert chefs. While I truly enjoyed the movie, I found it daunting that no one else would pay to see it.

But why? Lately, I’ve paid to see several quality movies that have failed to find audiences, all in an effort to come up with some reasonable explanations. Too many specialty pictures simply aren’t performing. So let me review some theories:

  • Distributors are blowing it by mandating that every “smart” movie has to come out in a tight corridor in the fall; there’s too much to see in too short a time. It’s autumn, and prospective filmgoers are also involved in football, school activities and Donald Trump.
  • Cannibalization. Films geared to a specific audience are on a collision course. Hence “Truth,” “Trumbo,” “Spotlight,” “99 Homes” and “Our Brand Is Crisis,” all dealing with social and political issues, are set up to compete for media attention. It’s also true of a number of ambitious films aimed at women, such as “By the Sea,” “Carol,” “The Danish Girl,”  “Brooklyn,” “Suffragette,” “Miss You Already” and “Learning to Drive,” most of which have been shoehorned into a short number of autumn weeks. It’s a Darwinian strategy that results in minimal survival.
  • The stars have lost their drawing power, but so have the genres. Studios used to bank on big names to open pictures, but the star system worked best when stars were matched with genres. John Wayne opened Westerns, not pro-Vietnam propaganda movies. Most of today’s stars, like George Clooney or Sandra Bullock, try to distance themselves from genre films, and Daniel Craig bitches about being typed as James Bond. The new Angelina Jolie movie is a classic example of playing against type: She and husband Brad Pitt are cast as middle-aged lovers suffering from ennui as they observe the mating habits of a hot young couple. The great Fred Astaire once confided to me, “I don’t resent the fact that I’m extinct, but I resent that my genre (the musical) also is extinct.”
  • The current crop of movies seems somehow diminished by the media fixation on the present “golden age of television.” The water cooler conversation — online version — focuses on binge-watched digital shows, or even an evanescent YouTube act. During the summer, the kids put that all aside, and respond faithfully to their must-see Marvel Comics movie opening. But come fall, their parents aren’t as ready to leave the house.

There’s merit to all of these theories, to be sure, but it’s also arguable that they’re basically a rerun of analyses posed in the ’50s and early ’60s. That moment witnessed the ultimate cord-cutting: Hollywood’s once-loyal “habit” audience suddenly stopped going to the movies. More than half the audience simply vaporized —  due to an earlier golden age of TV.

What happened next is well recorded. Excitement was regenerated by a mix of socially relevant films like “The Graduate,” “Easy Rider” and “Carnal Knowledge,” with many featuring stunning theatrical experimentation. Audiences rejoiced at a new excuse to buy tickets. And exhibitors, even in the mid-’70s, welcomed the fresh product and fostered it. “Jaws” wasn’t booked against another shark film. Lucas didn’t find himself fighting off Spielberg. It seemed as though a new cinematic community had been born.

To be sure, the major studios were not solely responsible for generating this revival. By the mid-’60s, most of the old-line studio chiefs had been tossed out and, by the end of the decade, most of the studios were on the brink of bankruptcy.

Still, films got made, albeit with sharply limited resources.

It’s a moment that seems particularly appropriate to note, now. After all, a new “Star Wars” epoch is dawning.

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  1. The “socially relevant” films are too often left-wing swill like “Truth” (Robert Redford’s predictably revisionist whitewashing of the Dan Rather disgrace) or “Trumbo” (yet another wallow in HUAC-era self-righteousness and martyrdom). Movies like this aren’t doing well for one simple reason: a lot of people just aren’t interested in going to see crap like that.

  2. JM says:

    you need an edit function for your comments section.

  3. JM says:

    I don’t go because I am boycotting liberal movies and liberal
    subjects, “Trumbo” for instance which I hear maligns John
    Wayne and glorifies a communist moron-Trumbo. I
    am NOT alone in my boycott. I not only dont supporty
    obama, but I don’t support an industry that supports him.
    Again, my sentiments are NOT alone.

    • JessieT says:

      You “heard” – that’s the trouble – stuck in your little isolationist chamber you only hear what you want to hear.
      TRUMBO is a not very important movie but it in no way maligns John Wayne or glorifies communists.

  4. TheBigBangof20thCenturyPopCulture says:

    Back in the day, moguls were immigrants who had an idealistic innocent vision of America and we were a more homogenous people. Today that’s long gone and replaced by millennial dystopia. Could it be that the 20th century was the height of film and can’t be improved upon in a grave new world? Or maybe good films appeal to those of higher intelligence while the dreck sells to small minded masses.

    • pjellisnyc says:

      I don’t think you are addressing the high cost to the public to see a movie and that our entertainment dollars only go so far. We pick and choose much more as to what we will or will not see in the theatre. So a “good” movie might not be something I see in the theatre, but instead, wait for it to come on cable. After all, why should I pay $15 dollars to go see a movie when I can wait 6-12 months and see it at home for 1/3 the price or free (not really, since my cable and internet costs are also too high)?

      • TheBigBangof20thCenturyPopCulture says:

        You forgot to mention costs have gone up and quality has taken a nosedive. When all you have to choose from are end of the world movies, RomComs or Superhero retreads, even the so called good films are somewhat mediocre. This is an era of dreck. Jump in a time machine to see good movies.

  5. Scott says:

    I think people are watching, just not at the movie theater. I will see all of the movies that you mentioned, just not at the theater, at home instead. The truth is movie theaters are on their last days. Streaming and the internet was a deadly blow, but the coming virtual reality explosion will kill the physical theater. Why go to the movies when you can watch a film on a virtual screen with any specifications your heart desires? Want it to look like the largest imax screen in the world? No problem.

    Once every person has a pair of goggles (and if Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Sony and a bunch of others have their way that will be in the next decade) movie theaters will all be closing down. They are dead already, they just don’t realize it yet.

  6. Green Berets was a big box office success…

  7. Jay says:

    Movies that purposely dig up an old genre or theme (The Artist for silent films, Trumbo for communism), are directed at a small artsy audience. And so are the Oscars. Is it any wonder they fail to connect. Hollywood despises the midwest and south. the studios make successful movies like Compton and Hunger Games to bankroll small pictures no one wants to see. 2 for them, 1 for me

  8. You burst your own bubble. Of the 52 weekends in a year, celebs gather and exchange trophies over at least 20 of them (seriously). That wasn’t wise. The movie star is nearly dead because YOU killed him – not us. Bradley Cooper??? Tom keeps producing quality entertainment and has been America’s undisputed movie star for the last 25 years. Why? Because he cares a great deal about the product and is in touch with what people want. And they don’t want reshaped histories projected through a silkscreen of liberal agenda. Deny it all you want, but injecting your agendas into your films doomed you all.

  9. Steve says:

    Movies are garbage nowadays, theaters stink and are expensive. Our local 16 theater movie house was packed all year round, then it went foreign. The marquee shows American cartoons based on comic books. The biggie hit recently are the Child Murder Games, with the bow and arrow wretch and her frozen, common face. Must we all celebrate the dystopian society we live in nowadays? What?

    Canadian indie movies play as well as Asian and Indian and Spanish movies. The massive parking lots were once stuffed with cars just five years ago, nowadays and especially the weekends, remain empty.

    It’s sad and ironic that in the thirties, in another man-made Depression, people flocked to the movies to escape dreadful reality, and the movies they saw were UPLIFTING and pleasing to the eye and spirit.

    Today Hollywood wants to rub our noses in our misfortune, so I’m tickled pink the studios are suffering.

  10. Colin Vickery says:

    The point missed here is that none of the films you’ve mentioned are any good. That is the reason they’ve failed. Take a look at their scores on Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic. The Woman in Gold is the perfect example of the fact that a quality adult film with a name star, in Helen Mirren, can still do very well at the box office through strong word of mouth. Same with Mirren’s The Hundred-Foot Journey or the two Exotic Marigold films.

  11. Neth says:

    So basically people are not interested in doomed movies like Burnt and By The Sea because they’re glued at home bingewatching House Of Cards or similar shows starring movie stars searching for more complex and interesting roles? Yeah, i can understand that.

  12. Danka Endrel says:

    And what about small independent films? I saw a fantastic film Z for Zachariah and it was in the cinema barely two weeks and then gone….. all my European friends are asking where they can see it and so far it does not even have distributor in Europe and it is exactly the kind of film that we Europeans would appreciate…

  13. Michael says:

    No zombies. Every movie from now on must have zombies to succeed. Or stuff blowing up. Yeah, more stuff blowing up. Never seen that before.

  14. cadavra says:

    It should also be noted that most of these grown-up films are being released by independent distributors (e.g., Open Road, Bleecker St.) or specialty arms (e.g., Searchlight, SPC). The majors long ago sold their souls by catering almost exclusively to the knuckle-dragging millennials and teens at the expense of everyone else; Disney in particular is now pretty much just a toy company that makes two-hour commercials which people happily pay $15-20 to see.

  15. pops07 says:

    The only people who can call a film “good” are the ones who buy the tickets. Simply put, a good film makes money. When Hollywood types call a film “good” it is simply an irrelevant exercise.

  16. Tony says:

    Mr. Bart, since 1905 your periodical, Variety wield it’s power throughout the entertainment industry with its “deeper analysis pieces, investigative pieces with its journalistic spirit — digging into stories and finding tough angles.” You Mr. Bart also likes to remind us that your comments are based on your years of personal experiences as an executive in various studios. Therefore, as the EVP and Editorial Director of Variety; your journalistic comments in “digging into stories and finding a tough angles” should at the very least have the wiles of a skilled journalist and the power to make the theater owners aware of an ongoing major problem in their theaters. I’m referring to one of the comments above from “Tom Samp’s” comment above: “Audiences now have abandoned the unspoken rules of decorum and consideration, distracting other viewers with their cell phones in the dark theater.”

    I’ve personally witness numerous arguments’ that could have easily escalated to physical confrontation’s regarding numerous individuals using their cell phones throughout the movie. Mr. Bart, a suggestion to the theater owners! Prior to the start of the movie, the patent friendly cartoon notice to the audience requesting to turn off their cell phones; INSTEAD; of a cartoon notice, there should be a strong warning that ANYONE using a cell phone will be asked to leave the theater including a refund for their ticket or tickets. Surprising, most of those using their disturbing cell phones are not limited young people, rather self- indulgent encroaching adults with no regard that they disturbing others in the audience. The cost of having one or two ushers overlooking the specific theaters are less than having arm security in every theater.

  17. Jen says:

    The average American sees 2 films a year. This year it was Jurassic World and Star Wars. Not much room for anything else. Simple as that.

  18. EK says:

    Bottom line: too many of these “relevant” or “creative” films are downers, filled with tortured characters in depressing situations. People have enough angst in their lives these days to spend big bucks to experience more of it in a movie theatre. They can catch up with this material, if they so choose, at home relatively quickly as windows shrink. Some folks are lucky enough to get all of them delivered to their doors thanks to guilds, associations etc., but these are a relatively few people when compared to the general audience. But it does explain why the Awards of all sorts are so skewed towards films the general public has often never heard of. If people are going to be asked to spend money on entertainment then they had better be entertained and too many of the autumn crop fail to do so. This results in a collective shrug and an “I’ll just wait for Star Wars” mentality. Or visit a film festival where like-minded film buffs do enjoy the cinema experience. But not at the local multiplex.

  19. You’re amazingly out of touch, just like Hollywood, which regularly alienates at least half of its audience by making things they care about but the majority do not. I’ve told people for years that Hollywood makes the movies it can, not necessarily those it should, and loses at least half the business it could bring in. For example, some films you cited. Trumbo – It’s a lie and propagand; will they ever let HUAC go? By the Sea – There’s enough unhappiness out there and people would like to be happily en couple; instead, Angie and Brad give us their meaningless pretty soap opera. Carol – It was tough being a lesbian in decades gone by? Well, get over it; who doesn’t love Ellen now? The Danish Girl – Blame Caitlyn or Bruce Jenner (most of America isn’t sure). Spotlight is a fabulous movie about very brave journalists and a triumph, but there are a lot of Catholics who aren’t going to see it because they’re embarrassed and saddened about the ongoing evil of their church that finally got exposed. Could something like “Angels With Dirty Faces” get made today? Never – Hollywood just wants to be “socially relevant” meaning films with their prejudices. Hope this helps, but I’ll probably just get hate for it.

  20. T0rchwood says:

    I said it before, will say it again. I go to movies to see something I have never seen before (i.e. Terminator 2, for instance). If the movie title alone doesn’t grab my attention(Burnt? Isn’t that a Seth Meyer routine?), I’m certainly not going to waste $50 and 3 hours going to see some drama when life has enough drama already. The fact that Star Wars has already sold more in pre-sales ($50 mil) than all the Oscar contenders COMBINED should say something.

  21. Tom Samp says:

    These movies are said to appeal to “adult” audiences. As a child of the ’60’s and ’70’s, when a summer blockbuster meant “The Godfather” or “MASH”, I was a part of one of the biggest movie generations in the history of the medium.

    For me, there are three things that prevent these films from connecting with their “intended” audience: creative bankruptcy, promotion, and technology.

    Studios seem unable or unwilling to green-light truly creative work. When we attended films like “The Graduate”, “Midnight Cowboy”, “Z”, “Easy Rider”, and others of that type (considered “adult”- oriented films), there was an expectation that we would take away something, that our world-views would be challenged if not changed, that we would experience an exciting new angle on what cinema could do (apart from “cool”special effects)..

    While a few of these films echo those qualities (“Spotlight”, “Boyhood”), many others don’t seem artistically exciting, or cinematically challenging, to bother. None of them have that “big idea” or even that “interesting scene” that used to generate word of mouth. “Burnt”, frankly, doesn’t have a compelling subject matter, and nothing suggests that there is any underlying theme that would enrich me as a viewer. Even the grammar of filmmaking is lacking. Whatever happened to the use of editing/montage to suggest meaning? The use of original music to enhance mood? To intelligent dialogue with memorable, even useful, quotable passages? Such things still exist, but they are a sorely rare exception. One of the biggest signs of creative bankruptcy is the commercialization of awards. Movies used to be released, and THEN considered for awards. Today, Oscar campaigns start months before the first trailers are screened. All of that is so tired, and transparently manipulative.

    The way “Good” films are promoted now makes it almost impossible for the target audience to keep track of them. The few great films with adult themes and compelling human conflict, struggle today to find an audience, I think, because newspapers, one of the primary modes of reaching today’s target adult audience during our formative years, are disappearing. One would turn to the movie page to read and contemplate the movie posters (an art form itself) and check out snippets of reviews. Now, most theaters don’t even advertise in newspapers. Unless one is intimately familiar with every theater in one’s area, a moviegoer might not even be aware that a movie of great interest might be playing down the street. Sites like IMDB are useful if one has prior knowledge of a film.

    Emerging technologies have altered, not always in a good way, how movies are made, viewed, and distributed. The way audiences use a theatrical experience has changed. “Adult” audiences seem made to feel almost unwelcome at cinemas, except during the fall/winter crunch when we are expected to flock to the theaters almost daily to catch what the industry thinks we need to see in order to wager on the Oscar race. Cinematic innovation is lost on a screen as large as an average TV, tablet, or cell phone. Audiences now have abandoned the unspoken rules of decorum and consideration, distracting other viewers with their cell phones in the dark theater. The current “Movie Generation” reveres hardware and explosions, Nolan and Tarantino, but has forgotten or has contempt for ambiguity, symbolism, cinematic humanity, Bergman and Altman and all of those who made possible the kind of cinema that is no longer realizing its potential. And of course, the industry is following suit, leaving moviegoers like me in a barren, cinematic wasteland.

    • TheTome says:

      I think Tom Stamp hit the nail on the head when he pointed out it’s hard for audiences to keep track of them, or even hear about them. I’ve read a couple of article about this subject, and well over half the films they mention I’ve never even heard of! Burnt is a great example. I didn’t even know that movie existed untill I read this. It’s hard to get people to go see anything if they don’t know it exists. I try and stay in the loop, but I missed The Walk, and I really wanted to see that. When I read something mentioning it was a failure at the box office I was surprised to realize it had already been released. I had no idea.

      This is exacerbated by the shoehorning of smart movies into the fall. I spend 3/4 of the year seeing little of interest in the movie theatres and therefore ignoring them, and I’m suddenly supposed to add it back into my life over the fall? And remember to start looking up movies that I’ve never heard of? Unlikely. Whereas I know what Star Wars is, I’ve been hearing about it for two years now. Even if I didn’t want to see it I’d know it was coming.

  22. michaelmas54 says:

    Going to the cinema is an expensive night out where I live, and if you’re not going to gain anything by seeing a movie on the big screen rather than your own wide-screen TV, why bother? It will be on Netflix or VOD very soon. Also our local cinema will not show what they consider to be Indie films, even if they have big-star names, which is very frustrating.

    • Larry says:

      I see more movies than I ever have…but in the convenience of my home with my big screen and the ability to hit the pause or reverse buttons on my remote. I love independent and foreign films and Netflix has a great selection that keeps me busy until the new releases come out. Technology, home theaters and access to so many films at home/on demand has definitely made the theater experience less attractive to many.

    • Ted says:

      You called it. The cost of seeing a film in a movie theater keeps a lot of people away.

  23. DougW says:

    “Burnt” is a horrible title, but also, it looks like a movie which would get a wide release like “The Intern,” but the Weinsteins only put it in a few theaters, which to me says they don’t believe in it and neither should we.

    • JessieT says:

      BURNT was actually an engrossing and entertaining movie. Yes, the title was dumb and off-putting. I think what’s needed is a new approach by both theater owners and distributors. Movies were always made for money the industry is not and has never been a non-profit. So wake up everybody and let the new ideas in to revitalize the scene.

  24. clay says:

    Here’s a major problem.. Films don’t stick around like they once did. I live in the South and between this weekend and next, my city is getting the following films. Room, Spotlight, Labryinth of Lies, Suffragette, Secret in the Their Eyes, By the Sea, Brooklyn & Trumbo. I barely went to the movies the entire summer because tentpoles and comic book sequels and prequels and remakes DO NOT INTEREST ME. I’m 43 and & want to see movies with adults being adults. Now here is my problem. Which ones to go see in between work, Thanksgiving, family obligations, etc. because I have to go when they open because, usually, they only stick around for one week and then they’re gone. For months I was looking for something to see, and I got next to nothing for me, an adult. Now, I get them all at one time, and of course, the ones I don’t get a chance to see, are then tub-thumped for OScars and on OScar night, I’m like, I wish I could have seen this or that, if only they had stuck around and not left after one week so MOckingjay or God help us all, Star Wars, can take five out of eight screens at the local multiplexes, leaving some of us the moviegoing audience, alienated because we don’t want to see those kind of films.

  25. Sophie says:

    Our Brand Is Crisis and Burt are bad movies so if the flopped in box office then is the reaffirmation of how horrible those films are. However the Steve Jobs situation is different, in first time it’s a good movie with good performances but I guess audience never ever were interested on Steve Jobs life.
    I believe “Macbeth” the other film Fassbender starred this year looks so much interesting, with Game of Thrones lookind kind and with the magnificent Marion Cotillard, how not prefer this film over Steve Jobs.

  26. the problem with this article is that the writer has changed the meaning of “good films” to represent “mediocre crap”. what’s the point of paying $20 to watch burnt when one has been watching gordon ramsay do the same thing for almost 5 years on television?

  27. Basil Hepworth says:

    In 1987, the top 10 movies at the box office included Fatal Attraction, Good Morning Vietnam, Moonstruck, The Untouchables, The Secret of My Success and Witches of Eastwick. Hollywood has since lost the ability to craft studio films with big stars for adult audiences. Is it any coincidence that all the above mentioned ’87 films were studio releases, while the adult fare struggling this autumn is the output of the Specialty Divisions?

  28. James says:

    I think you are missing another point which is that independent cinema used to be the only place one could go to see edgy, provocative material. However, today one can see stories about transgendered people, gay people, Victorian love stories, drug addicts, etc. on cable, Amazon, Netflix, etc. As much as I am glad that a film like TRUMBO gets made, I can’t help but think it would be better off getting done on HBO or F/X. 20 years ago, I would have driven to an art house theater to see it. Today, however, it doesn’t seem that special. Ditto for movies like Truth and Steve Jobs. An art house or “smart” film needs to feel really different or just really great for me to pay to see it in the theater. Which brings me to films like BRAND IS CRISIS or BY THE SEA or BURNT. If dramas like them don’t get great reviews, why would I go to see them?

    Another point you have missed is that these “smart” movies have been failing all year long — for the most part. This Summer, movies like Jurassic World and Inside Out over-performed to the point that they all but wiped out all the smaller movies. Films like Far from the Madding Crowd, Me Earl & the Dying Girl, Dope, etc. made a fraction of what they should have made. And that was during the summer when people had lots of time to see movies. So, when should these films that are being released now be released? I just think we need to re-think these “smart” movies and whether they really belong in theaters — or whether they belong on another platform.

  29. Karen says:

    I think there’s an inherent flaw in your article starting at the top because you use BURNT as your first example of “good” films that are overlooked. Critics and audiences do not agree with you. Only six of the top 28 critics gave it a positive review — and adult audiences read reviews. It also didn’t get a great audience score. In addition, the idea of a celebrity chef feels so tired. Not to mention that Jon Favreau did it much better last year with his film, Chef. The audience can turn on numerous reality shows to see a chef behaving badly, why do they need to see this badly reviewed film? So, although I don’t disagree with your overall theory about smart films getting lost in the shuffle at this time of the year, I think you made a huge mistake by leading with this film. I think it failed based on its concept and execution, not so much because of it’s timing.

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