Last week, a story started doing the rounds that Ben Affleck’s latest directorial outing, Live By Night, has been a major financial failure for Warner Bros. The film, reported Variety, has left a $75m hole in Warner Bros’ pockets, off the back of less than chipper reviews and – more pertinently for Warner Bros – weak box office. The film cost $65m to make, with marketing and distribution costs on top. The current worldwide takings for Live By Night are sat at just shy of $20m, and thus the red ink.
It was disappointing, though, in the aftermath of that news to see it become almost widely-celebrated headline news, to the point where even the BBC knocked together a list of ‘costly film flops’. Ben Affleck, after all, had pretty much his choice of projects after he brought home Oscar gold for his last directorial outing, Argo. Yet, as his career behind the camera has demonstrated time and time again, he took a risk, and tried to stretch himself. And sure, if people don’t like the film and came away disappointed, they are and should be free to write what they like. But the undercurrent of schadenfreude in some quarters is disappointing. Ben Affleck is a filmmaker who had the clout to get a project off the ground, and he picked something not especially commercial, that interested him. That it didn’t quite work is one thing. Slamming him for actually stepping up to the proverbial plate and trying something risky is another.
Affleck isn’t alone, of course. This week too came the news that Sony is effectively writing down the expectation of its film unit by $1bn, off the back of a series of films that haven’t quite lit up the box office as hoped. Movies such as The Magnificent Seven, Ghostbusters and Passengers all did decent business, but not the kind of numbers that Sony was needing. As such, the headlines were out, and the knives soon followed.
When a big film fails, of course, it’s de facto now that it becomes big news. In recent years, headlines have followed the financial write-downs that followed the release of John Carter, Tomorrowland and The Lone Ranger at Disney alone. Conversely, there’s disappointment when Disney announces a slate of movies for 2017 that’s only got eight features on it. These two things do not seem unrelated to me.
This year, only Pixar’s Coco is not part of some franchise or movie universe from Disney. But then it’s damned if it does, damned if it doesn’t. Disney spent big on John Carter, Tomorrowland and The Lone Ranger, and whether you like the films or not, their respective financial disappointments have had clear ramifications.
It’s often written, after all, that audiences want more diverse movies, more gambles, more original features. You don’t have to go too far across movie message boards to see comments like ‘has Hollywood run out of ideas’. Yet when filmmakers try things outside of the comfort blanket of a franchise, they’re exposed to bigger risks. And then we have a movie press that sometimes has a habit of crowing about a failure, rather than supporting filmmakers who tried things.
Because appreciating that no film or studio has a given right to our cash, Sony at least took some chances in the last year or so. Sure, there was franchise stuff in there, but it also gambled on Passengers when nobody else would, and put money into a pretty diverse slate. Films such as The Walk, The Lady In The Van, Money Monster, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, T2: Trainspotting, Maggie’s Plan and Don’t Breathe all featured Sony investment. At a stage where Warner Bros was making announcements about how it wants to make fewer but bigger films, as bigger films are snaring more of the box office, Sony has been throwing out darts. Some of them hit.
But clearly not enough. And as a consequence, there are now even question marks over the future ownership of the Columbia Pictures film unit. Furthermore, unsurprisingly, franchises are the future for the studio. When the risky stuff fails, is it any wonder a studio seeks refuge with a new Smurfs movie, a Bad Boys sequel, a Jumanji remake and films such as The Emoji Movie and Barbie?
I do want to come back to the movie press. It’s my firm belief that the movie press should be on the side of the audience. It shouldn’t be about kowtowing to famous people, or gleefully taking in every piece of marketing bumf that’s spat out of a promotional campaign. But I do believe there’s a way to report financial failure, and it’s not to clamber on top of each other in a clickbait frenzy. I’ve not seen Live By Night, and obviously the fact that it’s not done well is news, news that will affect future productions that Warner Bros and Ben Affleck choose to make. But were there merits to the film? Is there material in there that’s worth a look, irrespective of whether a studio’s bank balance has been affected? I do think that weaving that in, alongside stories of a financial result that means precious little to those of us queuing at the multiplex on a Friday night, would be beneficial. And responsible.
If we, as viewers, really do want fewer sequels, fewer franchises, more original films, more original voices and more gambles in the fodder that our local cinema serves up, then part of that is being tolerant to failure, or to risks that didn’t come off. To support those who tried, and didn’t quite pull it off, and to not amplify the subset of schadenfreude that permeates some film reporting. I will seek Live By Night out, and I was looking forward to Ben Affleck directing a Batman film, before he stepped away from helming that overnight.
But also, I want a filmmaker like Affleck to continue feeling like he can swim against the tide without getting his backside kicked when it all doesn’t go to plan. A few less sensationalist headlines might just help…