It is not just the fate of humankind at risk in the latest release from the director Christopher Nolan; it is also the fate of the box office.
Hollywood executives are hoping that Interstellar, which features an all-star cast led by Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, will come to the rescue of what has been a terrible year for the industry on both sides of the Atlantic.
In Britain the total box office haul between the beginning of May and the end of August, the period when major studios tend to release their biggest earning films, was £398m, compared with £434m in 2013. In the US the situation was even worse: the $4.05bn (£2.56bn) total representing a 14% drop from 2013. Adjusted for ticket-price inflation, the US performance was the worst since 1997.
The World Cup, which occupied four weeks from mid-June to mid-July, may have played a significant part in keeping audiences away from the multiplexes, but it has nevertheless produced a crisis of confidence among the studios, with Warner Bros, Sony and DreamWorks among those that have been shedding jobs and cutting costs throughout the year.
Interstellar is being hailed as the film that could yet turn things around and reassure Hollywood that its model of tentpole blockbusters that prop up the rest of the business, still works. The much-hyped space-travel film was produced with a budget of $165m, and was released on Wednesday in the US and on Friday in Britain.
So far, the signs are encouraging. After its first day in the US, Interstellar topped the box office charts, taking $1.4m from 250 locations and it is on track to take $55m on its opening weekend. But Interstellar won’t have things its own way; industry forecasters expect it to be edged out by the new Disney animation, Big Hero 6, which is expected to take about $60m. In Britain, Interstellar is being released on the same date as last year’s big sci-fi hit Gravity, and by the same film company Warner Bros, and will certainly expect to match Gravity’s £6m-plus opening weekend – especially as it has the field clear from any other big-studio competition.
The high expectations of Nolan, after the box office and critical successes of his Batman trilogy, Inception and Memento, could work against the film. Charles Gant, a box office analyst for the Guardian, says expectations for Interstellar may harm it in comparison with Gravity. “Of course, Nolan has a fan base who will turn out for Interstellar, but Gravity arrived less freighted with anticipation – people went along perhaps not knowing quite what to expect and were suitably impressed. But the bar has been set pretty high for Interstellar.”
Reviews have been decidedly mixed, with some critics giving it short shrift. The New Statesman suggested the film alternates between “portentousness” and “gushing sentimentality”; the Wall Street Journal lambasted its “turgid discussions of abstruse physics … visual effects of variable quality and a time-travelling structure that turns on bloodless abstractions”. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw described it as “Nolan’s ... biggest spectacle, biggest pastiche, biggest disappointment”.
Are we in fact seeing a Christopher Nolan backlash? The 44-year-old English-born film-maker has so far led a charmed life; his seven previous features have earned $3.5bn at the global box office, and attracted largely admiring notices for his vocal preference for old-school celluloid formats and sparing use of CGI.
Leslie Felperin, film critic for the trade magazine the Hollywood Reporter, suggests that criticisms of his work mounted after his final Batman film, 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, which attracted complaints for its apparent conservative politics as well as for the muffled voice of its villain, Bane, and says that thematically he has failed to progress. “To his credit, he’s getting lots of money to make films that are not franchises; but I never feel he has that much to say. At his best he offers a technically adept formalism, but it’s not matched with content; if he found a way to marry the spectacle to heartfelt emotion, he’d be really on to something.”
All of which suggests the picture may be more complicated than it may appear. Steven Gaydos, executive editor of film industry magazine Variety, suggests that the film business won’t put all its eggs in one Interstellar-sized basket.“I don’t think Hollywood is counting on any one movie to save this year’s box-office,” he says Steven Gaydos, executive editor of film industry magazine Variety. “Of course the industry loves and needs big hit pictures. But the more realistic question is whether or not the year-end field has a chance of putting up some wins that edge the overall numbers up. Remember, last year was a huge year for the business and lots of observers will tell you there’s a cyclical nature to moviegoing fortunes. Does anyone think that the business is in trouble and that people are getting out of the movie-going habit? I don’t hear that, but there’s always been fear and loathing in Hollywood.”
Interstellar’s box office chances have been finessed by some quixotic creative decisions by Nolan: the 169-minute running time of the picture means that it will get fewer screenings per day than a standard-length film, though the multiple-format release – including Imax and 70mm as well as more conventional 35mm – may give dedicated filmgoers the motivation for repeated viewings.
Gant points out that this final quarter almost exactly mirrors 2013’s: Interstellar has taken the “Gravity slot”, while the next few weeks sees new Hunger Games and Hobbit films in almost identical date slots.
While this year there have been no John Carter or Lone Ranger-style big budget disasters (released in 2012 and 2013), there has been no spectacular breakthrough hit, he adds. No film has yet broken £40m in Britain this year. Last year there were two, Despicable Me 2 and Les Misérables; and the year before three – The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall – grossing more than £50m each.
“In the UK, we haven’t had a lot of flops this year, but we’ve lacked equivalent monster hits: no Despicable Me 2, or The Avengers – let alone something like Skyfall. If you are looking for a box office uptick, it looks as if we will have the same sort of performance in the final quarter as last year. The question then comes, can the other films provide anything. From what I’ve seen, I suspect the Paddington movie could be a bit of a bonus. At this end of the year, I think there’s a bit more gas in the tank.”
“I don’t think Hollywood is counting on any one movie to save this year’s box-office,” adds Steven Gaydos, executive editor of Variety. “Of course the industry loves and needs big hit pictures. But the more realistic question is whether or not the year-end field has a chance of putting up some wins that edge the overall numbers up. Remember, last year was a huge year for the business and lots of observers will tell you there’s a cyclical nature to movie-going fortunes. Does anyone think that the business is in trouble and that people are getting out of the movie-going habit? I don’t hear that, but there’s always been fear and loathing in Hollywood.”
Total UK box office gross in 2014 so far
1 The Inbetweeners 2 – £34.6m
2 Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – £34.5m
3 The Lego Movie - £34.1m
4 Guardians of the Galaxy – £29.3m
5 X-Men: Days of Future Past – £27m
6 How to Train Your Dragon 2 – £25.8m
7 The Amazing Spider-Man 2 – £23.6m
8 The Wolf of Wall Street – £22.3m
9 Maleficent – £20.4m
10 12 Years a Slave – £19.6m
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