THB #124: Northman & Nic Cage & The Box Office Ecosystem (Oh, My)
This is going to be a combination of 2 reviews and a look at the box office, so if only one side interests you and I get bogged down in one, I’ll get back to your interest soon.
(This was written before the Sunday Estimates, so some minor changes to the detail about this weekend are possible.)
We are in the lull between what Warners had hoped was a bigger Fantastic Fumbledore release and Marvel’s Strange Multiverse. So I take it as an encouraging thing that Universal’s 2 divisions (Big U Animation by DreamWorks Animation and indie arm Focus) decided to try to populate this space, as did Lionsgate.
Interestingly, Universal even supported the Lionsgate Nic Cage movie with promotion on the 10th line of Peacock with “Caged in April: All The Feels.”
Still, while I kinda know what Lionsgate was thinking, I don’t know what the f--- Lionsgate was thinking. They drank their own Kool-Aid on this one. It’s the unbearable weight of massive self-delusion.
And in saying that, I am not saying that The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a bad movie. It comes from a long lineage of better underperforming titles. The closest connected to Nic Cage is the magnificent Adaptation., written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze, neither of whom Tom Gormican is up to the challenge of matching, much less topping. The film also steals aggressively from the ideas of Being John Malkovich, but not exclusively Kaufman/Jonze or Nic Cage movies.
On the non-Nic side of this is Andrew Bergman’s The Freshman, which featured Brando playing Brando as a gentle version of Vito Corleone. (Of course, Cage is still connected there, as he starred in Honeymoon in Vegas, Bergman’s following directorial effort, co-starring James Caan, playing off of the idea of Sonny Corleone.)
The thing about The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is that it’s premise is charming, Cage is wonderfully game, Pedro Pascal is maybe his best since Narcos. I don’t know quite where Gormican came up with the age-appropriate and radically sane ex-wife and mother of Cage’s child idea (in real life, one son is 31 and the other son, 16 )… but Sharon Horgan is fun to see. (And Cage’s romantic history actually does include many age-appropriate women.) In the movie, his daughter is played by 23-year-old Lily Mo Sheen, daughter of Michael Sheen and Kate Beckinsale. Not sure why Kate B. wasn’t put in the ex-wife role. Maybe too expensive… or some other odd reason.
But I digress… which fits a movie full of digressions…
I’ll leap to the punchline… The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is fun… cute… full of conceptual easter eggs… not good enough.
It’s kinda like they took all the ingredients they loved and put them in the Vitamix and then stopped it about half way to a smoothie. The chunks of stuff still floating in the mix were cool… but they forgot that those sharp-edged chunks were hard to swallow.
A simple example is in the clip they keep showing in promotion over and over… the wall escape scene. We’ve seent this gag a million times. And wonderful variations of it, like Streep as Carrie Fisher in Nichols’ Postcards From the Edge, where she is hanging from the ledge of a high building then let’s go in exasperation, showing they are on a set and she is on her stomach. The idea of the gag is fine here. It works as a reference to many Cage films. But as a piece of direction… not good enough to be super funny. A giggle. Sure. But at the end of a 3-page scene, you need a belly laugh, not a giggle.
That is this movie, full stop. A giggle, not a belly laugh.
A world of SXSW geeks and critics, hungry for anything fresh or interesting as we come out of COVIDTimes, overrated the film. Lionsgate has seen Universal whip comedies out of South By and into wide release within months successfully in the past, starting with Knocked Up in 2007, followed by Bridesmaids, and most recently by The King of Staten Island, Blockers, and Good Boys.
But none of those is a high-kitsch self-reflective action comedy with a almost-comedically-too-long title. The $7.8m being projected by Lionsgate is kinda a win in the cold light of non-Austin day.
Adaptation., which is 100x better than this film, never got to go wide, never had a $3m weekend, and totaled $22.5m domestic. So for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent to do that number in domestic theatrical is what should really be seen as a good result. The fantasy that this was ever going to be more than that… well…
If you look at what the full box office for this weekend will be, it looks like it will come up short of the $100m a weekend standard that should be the ambition every single weekend, but not desperately off. Around $95 million.
And the fun story of this weekend’s box office is that it is really being driven by movies that not-so-expert experts have been whining to the world were “movies no one went to movie theaters to see anymore” for years and in some cases, a year.
The 2 top titles will be family films, both skewing young (The Bad Guys and Sonic 2. At #3, you got your flailing tentpole (Fantastic Beasts 3). At #4, you get a wildly over-priced (though it is on the screen) indie film from Focus in The Northman. Then, this Nic Cage funhouse mirror that, to be fair, got a wider release than any sane distributor would have attempted. And at #6, you have an actual A24 release that is outperforming anyone’s guess, Everything Everywhere All at Once, dancing witha possible $40 million domestic gross, certain to be in the Top 4 all-time for A24.
You know the only thing keeping this weekend from being over the $100m mark? The softer numbers for the movies that some would have you believe are the only kinds of movies that should be in movie theaters. Fantastic Beasts, Morbius, Ambulance, the prematurely poisoned box office of The Batman (which will add at least $1 million less to the box office this weekend than it would have without the rush to HBO Max).
And what of my beloved Top Ten Freshness stat? This week, the Top Ten looks to be, on average, in its 2.7th week in theaters. That is the “best” such result in 2022.
But like any useful statistic, it is a step in the analysis, not the analysis.
This gets a bit wonky… so I will try to clarify in small bites.
What you see at the top of this chart is 3 of the 4 Top Weekends of 2022. On the far right, you see what percentage those titles were to the overall gross of their weekends. Dominant. This reflects the how the box office bends to the mega-openers. It is not a bad stat. It just has its limitations.
We’re in our 16th weekend and only 3 openers over $45 million. The number of $45m+ openers will improve through the summer and towards the end of the year. But the market cannot live on that alone, with 40,000+ screens relying primarily on big openers.
What you see at the bottom of the chart are the 5 worst box office weekends of 2022. Logical enough. It is very hard to have a decent overall weekend if your top movie is under $25 million.
BUT… the stat that was used to configure this chart was not based on weekend grosses, good or bad. It is based, first, on the % of the overall weekend gross of the #1 movie on each weekend, then adjusted a bit to fit my argument here.
Where it gets interesting is in the middle.
That 2nd group of the 4 groupings are the 5 weekends where the #1 movie was between 40% and 57% of the total weekend gross. These weekends offer decent grosses in the top slot, but not strong enough to lead the overall market. It’s better than failure. But it’s not good enough for the exhibition business to move forward strongly.
But my real argument here is (and has been) that the third group of four on this chart, where there is a solid #1, but that one title it doesn’t dominate the weekend, is where we should aspire to see about half of the weekends in a year live. That is the healthiest spot, aside from monster openings.
This is where we see the movies that “nobody makes/puts into theaters” anymore. The middle class. The less showy part of the ecosystem. It’s where you are when a movie like Fantastic Dumbledore underperforms… but the weekend does die. It’s when a one-gender rom-com does okay… and the weekend doesn’t die. And it is, this weekend, where based on estimates, an original piece of animation can open to $25m, still deliver a decent weekend, hope for it to catch on moving forward, and be part of an assemblage of very indie-minded films, and get close the the $100m a weekend standard.
It’s no an absolute. It’s a moving sea. You can see that the Uncharted opening weekend was pretty strong and that The Lost City weekend wasn’t very strong. But I am trying really hard to bring some light to people stuck in the mythology of “it’s all about big movies and high art for cinemas.”
This is false. It always has been false. And trust me, some of the people who believe this stuff like it was handed down from God are really, really smart. But believing this is really, really dumb.
Not really, really dumb… much to my surprise… is The Northman.
And I have led with a lie in order to do a segue.
Robert Eggers is brilliant and fascinating. All I want for Christmas is My Dinner with Ari, just listening to Eggers and Ari Aster having dinner… with Alex Garland showing up for a nightcap and desert.
The Northman - in a less intellectual analysis than A.O. Scott - is an old-fashioned movie. I guess that is the shock.
The film is every bit of weird that the marketing suggests. Eggers has got a lot of Guy Maddin in him. The invocation of The Doors and Apocalypse Now and Hamlet in the lines, “I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjolnir.”
The movie is brutal and dirty and real and endlessly violent, etc. Still, there is a lot there to love in the detail work that Eggers clearly prioritizes. And he loves words. So there are more words than you would expect in this kind of movie. Ideas. Human interaction.
And then, somewhere in the 2nd act, Nicole Kidman’s performance emerges. There isn’t a ton of it. But she backhands someone (avoiding spoilers) and the movie wakes up from the high-intensity curio cabinet of the horrible life of the North Atlantic bersekers and becomes a classic movie about coming of age no matter the sacrifice.
And when I say “classic,” I mean Kurosawa, Lean, Borzage, Wellman, Sirk, Bergman, early Bond kind of classic. Old-Fashioned. Emotional. Slow. Dialogue before and after action.
The inciting incident. The young man’s willingness to put himself into slavery to get where he needs to do to avenge the inciting incident. The first blush of love. Heroic actions building to not just the revenge but making the villain’s circle question everything. Success. Failure. Resurrection. Love. Back to the revenge, but now as a whole adult. The realization that the single focus means a greater focus. Avenge the father, no matter the cost… but by the end, there is much more than revenge.
You can feel the love that Eggers has for the first half of the film. It’s too long. But when you linger in all that detail - not just blood - you have to respect the choices. Then, as you hit that late second/third act, the film becomes greater than the detail and greater than the violence.
To be honest, I don’t think I will feel the way I will forever feel about this film until the second viewing. Some complain about my 2-viewing take on a lot of movies. And while I agree that the average movie should be completely digestible in one sitting and that there are truly great movies where you are able to feel it quite fully on the first sitting, there is a group of movies that demand so much from the audience that they really don’t sit right in one sit. In the case of The Northman, I feel like my relationship with the first 75 minutes will be different the second time around… that there are likely themes laid down early that my mind wasn’t looking at/for that I will see the next time.
Also, there is the work of overcoming the marketing choices. Focus, understandably, decided to write off women in their marketing push. No matter how interesting the actual film might be for women (obviously speaking broadly on gender), there is way too much brutal violence for most of them to ever even start watching the film.
But Nicole Kidman may have given her best performance in years here, albeit without enough screentime for my tastes. And Anya Taylor-Joy is not just an add-on (The Girl) at all. She brings the almost-silent Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) to and through his third act journey.
When I was an hour into the film, I thought how Eggers could have just gone ahead and taken on Conan. But by the end, I was pulled into Eggers grander, more complex vision. (Truth told, my view of Conan is mostly via Milius. I am not a big reader of the character. So if you have a greater/grander view of Conan, apologies.)
If Focus had told me that there was something more to The Northman than the violence, I can’t say that the audience would have expanded to people who aren’t really happy to watch the seething male rage on display. Maybe fewer people would have shown up this weekend. I know there were about 247 men in the public screening I attended and about 3 women.
I got a lot more from The Northman than I expected. I truly believe that if it was handled as a film coming to market in a more complex way - as complex as the film - it is the kind of outsider movie that could have been a niche Best Picture candidate at the end of the year.
What we assume ahead about movies and the theatrical box office is often wrong. You don’t have to become an obsessive to take the positives that are offered. Truly. Valhalla is in the details.