Like ‘Jaws’ before it, Steven Spielberg’s ‘The Fabelmans’ could rewrite box office history

Steven Spielberg2021’s ‘West Side Story’ remake was a box office disappointment grossing $76 million worldwide, a rare failure for history box office King. After “The Fabelmansis less rare: after four weeks in theaters, Spielberg’s film has grossed $6 million on the domestic market.

When this film debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in September to rave reviews and the coveted People’s Choice Award, no one would have believed it would be available for home viewing a month after its theatrical debut. two weeks before Christmas, and more than a month before the Oscar nominations. However, that’s exactly what happened: “The Fabelmans” will be available on PVOD next Tuesday.

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Reviews remained strong after the festival, it’s still a strong Oscar contender and it has an A Cinemascore. However, “The Fabelmans” proves that no one – not even Spielberg – is immune to a drastically changed box office climate.

Older audiences are part of the problem — they haven’t returned to their old theatrical ways — but it’s not like they’ve been completely absent. This group launched the hit “Top Gun: Maverick” and turned out for “Ticket to Paradise”, “The Menu”, “Elvis”, “Where the Crawdads Sing” and “The Lost City”. With this balance sheet, industry estimates (apart from Universal) for “Fabelmans” suggested a domestic take of between $35 million and $65 million.

“Green Book” – Credit: Universal Pictures

Universal images

There is no evidence that Universal Marketing is at fault. Its model was “Green Book,” which also had its world premiere at TIFF in 2018 and won the People’s Choice Award, then had a limited platform opening before expanding to Thanksgiving. An alternative for “Fabelmans” could have been a Christmas platform release, with a January expansion running alongside awards and nominations, but that decision should have been made months before. At the time, the availability of the best theaters at Christmas seemed risky.

Beyond release date considerations, “Fabelmans” faced several downsides. Although highly touted and positioned for major awards, so were ‘The Banshees of Inisherin’ (Searchlight) and ‘TÁR’ (Focus); they also struggled, grossing $8.5 million and $5.4 million, respectively.

Also this fall was James Gray’s “Armageddon Time” (Focus), another semi-autobiographical film imbued with a sense of how a Jewish heritage influenced his childhood. With favorable reviews and significant festival attention, it grossed less than $2 million domestically.

This fall has seen specialty films revert to traditional theatrical strategies, but the results are not traditional. Similar films from other decades – Ingmar Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander”, “Cinema Paradiso” – clicked. It’s a real question if they would today.

“Everything, everywhere, all at once” – Credit: Courtesy of Everett Collection

Courtesy of Everett Collection

The big exception among specialty releases this year was “Everything, Everywhere, All At Once” (A24). It opened in March, away from awards hype, and immediately caught the attention of a much wider audience. It grossed $70 million, more even than Best Picture winner “Parasite” three years ago.

Perhaps the presumption for “Fabelmans” was that Spielberg guaranteed a high result. He’s the most successful filmmaker of all time, and his hits include those with strong awards/adult appeal like “Schindler’s List,” “Munich,” and “Lincoln.” However, not only did they open in less difficult times, these films also had an epic feel to them. As an autobiographical account of Spielberg’s childhood, “Fabelmans” is much smaller.

The best composition for “Fabelmans” was “Belfast” by Kenneth Branagh (Focus). His autobiographical story of growing up in a city torn apart by violence was one of the best specialty releases of 2021; like ‘Fabelmans’, it opened in November after winning the TIFF People’s Choice award. It closed with a domestic take of $9.2 million (much better international, $39.6 million).

Although it was in black and white, with sometimes delicate accents, “Belfast” arguably had a more conventional appeal for a specialized audience. His PVOD started after four weekends; which provided the lucrative revenue split essential to make it profitable.

‘Fabelmans’ could thrive at home, assuming nominations and potential wins boost him in the coming months. It also underscores perhaps the biggest problem it faces: its core audience now expects early home availability, especially for silent dramas.

Suppose Spielberg and Universal knew all this; Beyond the expectations of the public, there is a good chance that they have no regrets having done so. In 1975, Spielberg’s “Jaws” transformed box office expectations and rewrote the playbook for theatrical distribution. In his own way, Spielberg could do the same with “The Fabelmans”: it could be the film to tell us that even in the hallway of the Oscars, the major dramas of the great filmmakers cannot necessarily expect a significant theatrical response.

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