‘The Big Short’: Oscar Season Box Office Breakout or Another ‘Steve Jobs’?

The Big Short
Courtesy of Paramount

At the end of August, Adam McKay unveiled “The Big Short” to a test audience on the Paramount Pictures lot.

In one sense the film, with its jaundiced take on the financial institutions and money men whose reckless bets plunged the global economy into disaster, was a departure for McKay, a director best known for broad comedies such as “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.” But what impressed Paramount executives who attended the showing that day was that McKay had excavated the humorous side of “too big to fail.”

“We were shocked by how much laughter we were getting,” remembered Rob Moore, Paramount’s vice-chairman. “Adam has such a wry sense of humor that he was able to take a subject matter that’s dense and academic and make it entertaining.”

“The Big Short” was originally slated to debut in February or March, but believing they might have an Oscar contender on their hands, Moore and Paramount chief Brad Grey pressed McKay to get the film finished in time for a December release. They were adamant about one thing: it was critically important that McKay have the picture locked in time for screeners to be sent to awards voters, something the studio failed to do last year with “Selma,” which many pundits felt resulted in the Civil Rights drama being snubbed by the screen actors, producers and directors guilds.

“I was not going to make the same mistake twice,” said Moore.

Paramount went ahead with the release shift and based on “The Big Short’s” limited release and strong showing at the Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe nominations this week, it was the right gamble. The film scored the second-best per-screen average of the year with $90,000, and made a solid $720,000 from eight theaters. It is now viewed as a leading contender to capture a best picture Oscar nomination, something that could boost its box office results.

It’s easy to see how Paramount’s bet might have gone south. Michael Lewis, author of the best-selling book that inspired “The Big Short,” recently admitted that he never expected Hollywood would be interested in even making a movie of his sprawling account of the byzantine financial instruments that brought global commerce to its knees. After all, the “good guys” in this story are a handful of Wall Street Cassandra’s whose decision to bet against subprime-mortgage bonds gave them a financial windfall while other people saw their 401(k) and pension plans go up in smoke.

“One problem I distinctly did NOT worry about when I wrote ‘The Big Short’ was how to write it so that it would become a movie,” Lewis wrote in this month’s Vanity Fair. “Who’d make a movie about credit-default swaps?”

Moreover, films about the financial crisis have a mixed track record. “Up in the Air” did well, earning $83.8 million, but “The Company Men” eked out $4.4 million, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” disappointed with $52.4 million and “Margin Call” topped out at $5.3 million. The odds were about as steep as the ones facing the rag-tag group of bankers and investors who Lewis lionized for bucking conventional wisdom and betting against the market.

But by tapping an all-star cast that includes Brad Pitt, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Christian Bale, and figuring out an outlandish way to explain the intricacies of the financial crisis (in one scene, a champagne-sipping Margot Robbie explains derivatives while in a bubble bath), McKay was able to make an unfilmable book intelligible and appealing on screen.

Critics have certainly responded to his vision. New York Magazine’s David Edelstein named the film one of the year’s best and the New York Times’ A.O. Scott raved that the film “…will affirm your deepest cynicism about Wall Street while simultaneously restoring your faith in Hollywood.”

In order to avoid getting steamrolled by “Star Wars: The Force Awakens'” debut next week, Paramount will keep “The Big Short” in roughly the same amount of theaters until Dec. 23, when it will expand to approximately 2,000 locations. The studio believes the film will resonate with mainstream crowds and could earn as much as “Up in the Air” managed to rack up domestically.

It’s too early to call “The Big Short” a success, however. Many films have done massive business in limited release only to collapse when they expanded. Two months ago, “Steve Jobs” racked up a stunning $130,381 per-theater average when it debuted in four locations. But the biopic about the Apple founder was shunned by audiences when it went into wide release, and has only managed to eke out $17.8 million — a disappointing showing for a film that started off so strongly.

In order to succeed, “The Big Short” will need to bring out adult moviegoers and that has been an unreliable segment of the ticket-buying audience in recent months. “Our Brand is Crisis,” “Rock the Kasbah,” “Burnt” and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” are just a few of the films that have tried and failed to capture that elusive demographic. Just this weekend, “In the Heart of the Sea” sank with an $11 million debut — a disastrous result for the $100 million whaling drama.

“It’s been slow this season,” said Jeff Goldstein, a distribution executive at Warner Bros., the studio behind “In the Heart of the Sea.” “To get the adult audience out at this time of year has been particularly difficult.”

Magnifying the hurdles “The Big Short” faces is the fact that Christmas will bring a glut of awards contenders such as “The Revenant,” “The Hateful Eight” and “Joy” that will all be pitched at the same sophisticated moviegoers it needs to bring out in force.

“It’s the million dollar question whether movies like ‘The Big Short’ can expand beyond their core fanbase of older sophisticated viewers and strike a chord with the mainstream,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak.

But analysts think that “The Big Short” could escape “Steve Jobs'” fate by virtue of its critical reception and its star power.

“It’s a different beast than ‘Steve Jobs,'” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “It’s a perfect storm of a great cast, great reviews and an interesting story that a lot of people don’t know.”

Plus it has one important leg up on “Steve Jobs”: timing.

“Getting awards season buzz in October, as ‘Steve Jobs’ did, is one thing,” said Dergarabedian. “But it helps even more to get it in December right before nominations are announced like ‘The Big Short’ is doing. It keeps it fresh.”