You couldn’t blame anyone involved in “Life Itself” for wanting to put money and sweat equity into the project.
The sprawling family drama was the work of writer-director Dan Fogelman, who has one of the biggest hits in contemporary broadcast television with “This is Us.” If even 10 percent of the audience for an average episode came out for his movie’s opening weekend, it would have performed solidly, opening above $15 million.
Alas, the film tallied $2.1 million. Though it starred beloved actors such as Oscar Isaac and Annette Bening, it had the worst opening of any film this year on 2,500-plus screens. The Amazon release didn’t even finish in the box office top 10 for the weekend, outpaced by the third week of “Peppermint” and the seventh week of “The Meg.”
Needless to say, there are lessons, grim as they are, to be gleaned from its gallumping. Here are six.
Amazon’s got some figuring out to do. Okay, so the two Joaquin Phoenix movies, "You Were Never Really Here” and “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,” were art-house plays. And Woody Allen’s “Wonder Wheel” was probably never going to blow off the doors of the box office even if the movie from the embattled director didn’t come out as Hollywood’s #MeToo scandals were cresting, which it did. But this Amazon Studios release came with fewer built-in excuses.
Now that it’s flopped, it means the four movies the company has released as solo distribution ventures have all been duds, none grossing more than $3 million thus far; only earlier films like “The Big Sick” and “Manchester by the Sea,” involving partnerships with a veteran distributor, did well at the box office. (Amazon’s chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Washington Post.) With these flops — and an overhaul in other parts of Amazon Studios — it may not be long before a shakeup arrives at the company’s film division.
Maybe pricey acquisitions aren’t such a good idea? Amazon bought “Life Itself” for at least $10 million. That’s generally thought of as a sound investment, given how much it costs to make a movie. Then you start doing the math. Studios collect about half of domestic receipts. So even if “Life Itself” gets up to $10 million domestically (it won’t) that means only $5 million in Amazon’s pocket. And that’s before deducting TV and other advertising costs. Those big buys at Sundance — “Assassination Nation” flopped this weekend too — are riskier than we thought; for every “RBG” there’s a “Life Itself.”
Something about the big canvas of TV doesn’t lends itself to the big screen of film. Maybe it’s that the one-off structure can’t contain all those overspilling plot points, but when was the last time a great TV creator jumped straight to film and directed a hit? David Chase of “The Sopranos” disproved his title with “Not Fade Away,” a rock-and-roll coming-of-age story that garnered less than $1 million at the domestic box office. Matthew Weiner, of “Mad Men” fame, achieved the same underperforming feat with “Are You Here,” only his movie notched a (gulp) 7 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Vince Gilligan, the mind behind “Breaking Bad,” is wisely staying away.
Epic dramas with interlocking storylines don’t work. I mean, it’s not as if they fundamentally can’t work — in the 2000s there were “Babel” and “Crash.” But then came duds like “Hereafter” and “Third Person.” And after “Cloud Atlas,” one of the most expensive attempts ever at the genre, cratered hard, the genre should give any studio or investor pause. Epic action movies seem to hold up. The smaller-stakes stuff? Less so.
Why go wide? It’s not as if it didn’t have a pedigree — the script for “Life Itself” was on the Hollywood Black List for vaunted screenplays. And Fogelman wrote “Crazy Stupid Love,” that 2011 summer comedy breakout with Ryan Gosling and Steve Carell. So there was reason to think the film could have generated a big audience. But even with all that, should “Life Itself,” at heart a human drama, really have gone wide on more than 2,600 screens its first weekend? Or should it have platformed, going to a handful of theaters and then rolled out slowly, driven by word of mouth?
The problem is you need critics for word of mouth. And critics savaged “Life Itself” — it earned just a 10 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.
Speaking of critics, it probably wasn’t a great idea for Fogelman to attack those evaluating his movie. As the film was rolling out, the director gave an interview to the website Too Fab.
“A couple of the early reviews that have come out about this movie feel so out of left field to everybody who’s a part of this movie and to people who have been screening this film for the better part of a year now to both fancy filmmakers, critics, and audiences," he said. "There’s a disconnect between something that is happening between our primarily white male critics who don’t like anything that has any emotion. I don’t feel that often now our pop and film critics are speaking for a sophisticated audience anymore,” he added.
Many female critics quickly piped in to point out this wasn’t a gender thing — they didn’t like the film, either. (Among the negative reviews from female critics was Kristen Page-Kirby in the pages of The Washington Post; she called the movie a “giant letdown” and said it was “less journey than lecture.”) Most of those dismissive reviews were coming anyway, so it’s not as though Fogelman prompted them with his slam. Still, even after a partial walkback, it probably won’t bode well for reviews of his next film attempt.