Damien Chazelles $80 million Hollywood epic from the 1920s Babylon went up in a blaze of fire at the domestic box office last weekend with an awful $5.3 million four day start.
Say what you will about harsh winter conditions affecting film trips across the country, but this film, greenlit by a former Paramount regime and heavily backed by the new Brian Robbins administration, defied the odds as soon as it was previewed to a cynical press more than a month ago at the Academy Theater to lackluster reviews at 56% Rotten Tomatoes. Further burying the pic’s fate were audience exits including an abysmal C+ CinemaScore and PostTrak of 74% and 47% Strongly Recommended, not to mention its 3-hour, 8-minute running time. Babylon is the lowest wide release stateside opening for star Margot Robbie at $3.6M Amsterdam‘s $6.4M, as well as Brad Pitt as a leading man, down from the $4M start of 1993’s True romance.
With results like these, no one chooses to watch Babylon during the holidays, even if there is a lack of adult competition. According to financial sources, it’s too early to tell how much bleeding will happen here because the Robbie-Pitt film doesn’t start its rollout overseas until mid-January. That said, this film’s profit points live around $250 million WW, and that’s with a global marketing spend of around $80m, the same as production costs. Paramount, like any studio, will scale back their marketing spend on the film in the wake of its stateside flop, I’m told. The picture has already earned five Golden Globe nominations, including Best Motion Picture Musical or Comedy.
Important to note that in the new Covid era, whatever a movie gets at the box office has been shown to hurt its Oscar chances. And there are several examples to prove it, a prime case being Searchlight’s 2021 Best Picture winner Nomadland, which made single-digit grosses and where Disney’s arthouse label never reported the picture’s official box office sales.
Interior for Babylon is lucky to reach $20M, which puts enormous pressure on overseas to deliver, which means another $230M, which is mission impossible. That said, Paramount believes the pic’s running time, which is more palatable to an overseas audience, plus UK and French reviews will provide Babylon a kind of pulse abroad. “They like this type of film,” says an insider. Chazelle’s First man earned 57% of its $105M WW total overseas. Japan, South Korea, Great Britain and France were key territories for that film, as well as for Chazelle’s multi-Oscar winner La La Land. Last year, Guillermo del Toro’s $60 million period piece Nightmare Alley earned 11.3 million $ domestic and 39.6 million $ WW.
Before someone writes an obituary about original movies at the box office Babylon‘s results, it is important to distinguish the movie from everyone else. The picture with its inside Hollywood story was already a gamble, not to mention its hard ‘R’ story, which in the first 30 minutes before the title credits includes an elephant pooping on a human and a Fatty Arbuckle-type who getting pooped on by a whore. Robbie’s Clara Bow-like character vomits at a stuffy Hollywood soiree much later in the film. Who was the audience for this other than critics and award voters? Films about the inner workings of Hollywood were historically inferior. Not to mention, the price level of this period piece, like the WWI-era set Amsterdam, made the project an impossible task to achieve profitability for rival studios. So they passed.
Examples of Hollywood Insider Films That Didn’t Translate to Mass Audiences: The 3x Oscar Nominee Chaplin with Robert Downey Jr. starring back in 1992, grossing just $9.5M. in the state (although it caused Hollywood to take SNL alum seriously as an actor) and the 2x Cannes winner title The player only grossed $21.7M that year as well.
Paramount thought they had The Wolf of Wall Street and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in Babylon. They didn’t: Both of those movies starred Leonardo DiCaprio. The Wolf of Wall Street worked ($406.8m WW) in its appeal of its intriguing subject matter to upscale audiences about the rise and fall of stockbroker Jordan Belfort, while Once Upon a Time in Hollywood ($377.6M WW) had Quentin Tarantino’s electric storytelling. Babypay, which follows the chaos that occurred in Hollywood during the transition from silent films to talkies, was in Chazelle’s eyes an allegory for what the industry is experiencing today in the clash between the big screen and streaming. If the filmmaker had to do Babylon again – he would be fine at the cinema. The question is whether he could make it at a lower price point, which is the likely fate of some of these adult-skewing original films.
Chazelle and the picture’s producers, Olivia Hamilton and Matthew Plouffe, went Babylon over to Paramount, where Wyck Godfrey was then president of the Motion Picture Group. Godfrey was a producer on Chazelle’s First man. Godfrey’s mo at the time was to find and make awards season films that Babylon to the Melrose grounds, does not Transformers movie. Chazelle had been developing the project for some time; Plouffe first learned that as a former Focus Features executive when the two met at Sundance about 13 years ago.
“He responded to it and became that champion,” Chazelle told us of Godfrey’s support Babylon on Deadline’s Crew Call. “He fought hard to get the movie into the studio. Without him, I’m not sure it would be a Paramount movie.”
After Godfrey left, former Paramount head of production Emma Watts took over supervision Babylon and aimed to get it in shape before she left in September 2021.
Babylon originally planned to start production in March 2020, but the pandemic and filming did not start until July 2021 in Santa Clarita. The area remains a hotbed for Hollywood filming, dating back to the silent era when Chaplin shot Modern times on the high plateau area, 40 km north of LA. The mansion of the late western star William S. Hart served as the domicile of Pitt’s movie star character in the film, Jack Conrad.
Plouffe told us on Crew Call, “There was something essential to us about making the movie the way movies were made in the ’20s, in the places where they made movies and not faking it.”
Despite California’s tax credits and filming locally, there is a cost to lensing a production in California given the higher proportion of union labor. Not to mention the start and stop of making a film during Covid which also affected production costs for the worst Amsterdam. Emma Stone originally had the female lead before she left due to a scheduling conflict in December 2020. That’s when Robbie’s attachment was announced, as Deadline first reported.
Typically, films from a previous studio regime become orphans as new masters emerge, but that didn’t happen with this one Babylon. Godfrey left in June 2020 when Watts arrived. She left shortly after Jim Gianopulos was fired as chairman and CEO in September 2021, when Robbins took over. He has nothing but support Babylon and Chazelle, awarding the Oscar-winning La La Land director a first-look production deal for his Wild Chickens label at Paramount.
Babylon will hit Paramount+ before its Epix pay-TV window. Exhibitor sources tell me it’s in a 45-day theatrical window. The studio shed risk in Toronto-based co-financier C2 Motion Picture Group, led by Jason Cloth, who I’m told has a significant stake in the film. At an international box office of $230m. and $20 million. domestically estimated finale it would trigger revenues of $114m. in cinema rentals, $10 million. in domestic home entertainment and streaming, $28m. in international entertainment, $2 million. in domestic free-to-air TV, $4m. pay TV and $40 million in international payments. That’s $198M in revenue against $188M in costs, which includes equity, residuals and interest for $10M profit (but that’s not likely to happen). Please note: No producer or Dwayne Johnson gave us these numbers (stars and producers don’t have access to studio P&L statements, duh). These estimates come from film financing sources and are on par with all the P&L calculations and research we’ve done over the years.
Says an insider connected to the production defender Babylon‘s production costs: “We moved so fast to get what we needed. We didn’t have the luxury of one more dollar. It was the incredible faith of Paramount that moved mountains to get this movie made and Damien’s vision .”
“The movie became a spiritual mission, so different from the green screen Marvel movies,” adds our source, “We didn’t have a lot of money and not a lot of money was coming in.”
As for Paramount, and the outlook for awards season Babylon, it’s nowhere near fading to black.