Damien Chazelle’s $80M 1920s-set Hollywood epic Babylon went up in a blaze of fire at the domestic box office this past weekend with an awful $5.3M four-day start.
Say what you will about harsh winter conditions impacting moviegoing across the country, however, this movie, which was greenlit by a previous Paramount regime and greatly supported by the new Brian Robbins administration, was against the odds as soon as it 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 awful C+ CinemaScore and PostTrak of 74% and 47% definite recommend, not to mention its 3-hour and 8-minute running time. Babylon is the lowest wide release stateside opening for star Margot Robbie at $3.6M, beating Amsterdam‘s $6.4M, as well as Brad Pitt as a leading man, lower than the $4M start of 1993’s True Romance.
With results like these, no one is making Babylon a choice to see over the holidays even though there’s a lack of adult competition. According to finance sources, it’s too soon to determine how much bleeding will go on here because the Robbie-Pitt movie doesn’t start its overseas rollout until mid-January. That said, this movie’s profit point lives around $250M WW, and that’s with a global marketing spend of around $80M, the same as its production cost. Paramount, like any studio, will scale back their marketing costs on the movie in the wake of its stateside flopping, I’m told. The pic has already notched five Golden Globe nominations including Best Picture Musical or Comedy.
Important to note that in the new Covid era, whatever a movie grosses at the box office hasn’t shown to impair its Oscar chances. And there are several examples to prove that, a chief case being Searchlight’s 2021 Best Picture Winner Nomadland which did single-digit grosses and on which the Disney arthouse label never reported the pic’s official ticket sales.
Domestic for Babylon is lucky to hit $20M which puts an immense amount of pressure on overseas to deliver, meaning another $230M which is mission impossible. That said, Paramount believes the pic’s running time, which is more appetizing to an overseas crowd, plus UK and French reviews will give Babylon some sort of pulse abroad. “They like these types of movies,” says one insider. Chazelle’s First Man made 57% of its $105M WW total overseas. Japan, South Korea, UK and France were key territories for that movie, as well as for Chazelle’s multi-Oscar winner La La Land. Last year, Guillermo del Toro’s $60M period piece Nightmare Alley made $11.3M domestic and $39.6M WW.
Before anyone writes an obituary on original movies at the box office off on Babylon‘s results, it’s important to distinguish the movie from all others. The pic with its inside-Hollywood period tale was already a gamble, not to mention its hard ‘R’ story which in the first 30 minutes before the title credit includes an elephant pooping on a human and a Fatty Arbuckle-type getting defecated on by a hooker. Robbie’s Clara Bow-like character vomits at a stuffy Hollywood soiree much later in the film. Who was the audience for this aside from critics and awards voters? Movies about the inner workings of Hollywood were always low-grossers historically. Not to mention, the price point on this period piece, just like WWI-era set Amsterdam, made the project an impossible task to achieve profitability for rival studios. So, they passed.
Examples of Hollywood insider movies that didn’t translate to mass audiences: The 3x Oscar-nominated Chaplin starring Robert Downey Jr. back in 1992 which only did $9.5M stateside (although it did make Hollywood take the SNL alum seriously as an actor) and the 2x Cannes winning title The Player only grossed $21.7M that year as well.
Paramount thought they had Wolf of Wall Street and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in Babylon. They did not: Both of those movies starred Leonardo DiCaprio. Wolf of Wall Street worked ($406.8M WW) in its appeal of its thrilling 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 the electric storytelling of Quentin Tarantino. Babylon, which follows the mayhem that ensued in Hollywood during the transition from silent films to talkies, was in Chazelle’s eyes an allegory to what the industry is experiencing today in the clash between the big screen and streaming. If the filmmaker had to do Babylon all over again — he’d make it for the cinema. The question is whether he could make it at a lower price point, which is the likely fate for some of these adult-skewing original movies.
Chazelle and the pic’s producers, Olivia Hamilton and Matthew Plouffe, took 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 m.o. at the time was to find and make awards season movies like Babylon for the Melrose lot, not Transformers movies. Chazelle had been developing the project for some time; Plouffe first learned about it as a former Focus Features executive when the two met at Sundance some 13 years ago.
“He responded to it and became that champion,” Chazelle told us about Godfrey’s support of Babylon on Deadline’s Crew Call. “He fought hard to shepherd the movie into the studio. Without him, I’m not confident it would be a Paramount movie.”
After Godfrey left, former Paramount production boss Emma Watts took over the overseeing of Babylon and aimed to get it into shape before she left in September 2021.
Babylon originally planned to start production in March 2020, but the pandemic hit and filming didn’t start until July 2021 in Santa Clarita. The area remains a hotbed for Hollywood shoots, going back to the silent era when Chaplin shot Modern Times in the high plateau area, 25 miles north of L.A. The mansion of late Western star William S. Hart served as the domicile for 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 films and not faking that.”
Despite California’s tax credits and shooting locally, lensing a production in California comes at a cost given the higher rate of union labor. Not to mention, the start and stop of doing a movie during Covid, which also impacted the production cost for the worst of Amsterdam. Emma Stone originally had the female lead before exiting due to a scheduling conflict in December 2020. That’s when Robbie’s attachment was announced, as Deadline first reported.
Typically movies from a previous studio regime are orphaned as new lords emerge, but that didn’t happen with Babylon. Godfrey left in June 2020 when Watts was arriving. She left soon after Jim Gianopulos’ firing as Chairman and CEO in September 2021 when Robbins took over. He’s been nothing but supportive of 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 on a 45-day theatrical window. The studio laid off risk in Toronto-based co-financier C2 Motion Picture Group, led by Jason Cloth, who I’m told has a sizeable chunk of the film. At a $230M international box office and $20M domestic estimated final, that would trigger revenues of $114M in theatrical rentals, $10M in domestic home entertainment and streaming, $28M in international entertainment, $2M in domestic free TV, $4M in pay TV and $40M in international pay. That’s $198M in revenues against $188M in costs which includes participations, residuals, and interest for $10M profit (but that’s not apt to happen). Duly note: No producer nor did Dwayne Johnson hand us these numbers (stars and producers don’t have access to studio P&L statements, duh). These estimates come from film finance sources and are on par with all the P&L calculations and research we’ve done throughout the years.
Says one insider connected to the production defending Babylon‘s production cost: “We moved so fast to get what we needed to get. We didn’t have the luxury of a dollar more. It was the incredible belief from Paramount that moved mountains to get this movie and Damien’s vision made.”
“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 there wasn’t a lot of money coming.”
As far as Paramount goes, and the awards season prospects for Babylon, it’s nowhere near fade to black.