Like “Jaws” before it, Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans has rewritten box office history

Steven Spielberg’s 2021 new film “West Side Story” was a box office disappointment with $76 million worldwide, a rare loss for the all-time box office king. After The Fabelmans, this one is even less of a rarity: After four weeks in theaters, Spielberg’s film has grossed $6 million domestically.

When this film debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in September to stellar reviews and a highly coveted People’s Choice Award, no one would have believed it would be available for home viewing a month after its theatrical debut, two weeks before Christmas, and more. More than a month before the Oscar nominations. However, that’s exactly what happened: “The Fabelmans” will be available on PVOD next Tuesday.

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Reviews have remained strong post-festival, it remains a significant contender for the Academy Awards, and it has a cinematic following. However, “The Fabelmans” proves that no one – not even Spielberg – is immune to the radically changing box office climate.

Older audiences are part of the problem – they haven’t gone back to their former theatrical habits – but it’s not like they’ve left entirely. This group launched the success of “Top Gun: Maverick” and turned into “Ticket to Paradise”, “The Menu”, “Elvis”, “Where the Crawdads Sing” and “The Lost City”. With such a proven track record, industry estimates (outside of Universal) for “Fabelmans” have put the domestic haul between $35 million and $65 million.

Green Book – Credit: Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

There is no evidence of wrong global marketing. Her model was “Green Book,” which also premiered globally at TIFF in 2018 and won a People’s Choice program, then had a limited runway opening before going wider for Thanksgiving. An alternative to “Fabelmans” might be launching a platform at Christmas, with January expanding in tandem with awards and nominations, but this decision must be made months in advance. At the time, the availability of major theaters during Christmas seemed precarious.

Besides release date considerations, “Fabelmans” had several drawbacks. Although highly rated and nominated for major awards, so were “The Banshees of Inisherin” (Searchlight) and “TÁR” (Focus); They struggled as well, grossing $8.5 million and $5.4 million, respectively.

Also this fall was James Gray’s Armageddon Time (Focus), another semi-autobiographical film imbued with a sense of how his Jewish heritage informed his childhood. With supportive reviews and major festival attention, it has grossed just under $2 million domestically.

This fall saw niche films return to traditional theatrical strategies, but the results aren’t traditional. Similar films have been clicked for other decades – “Fanny and Alexander” by Ingmar Bergman, “Cinema Paradiso”. It’s a real question if they’ll do it today.

“Everything everywhere at once” – Credit: Courtesy Everett Collection

Courtesy Everett Collection

The big exception among the niche releases this year was Everything Everywhere at Once (A24). It opened in March, out of the blue of the awards, and immediately caught the attention of a much wider audience. It made $70 million, more than even the top movie “Parasite” three years earlier.

It might be the “Fabelmans” assumption that Spielberg secured a high score. He’s the most successful filmmaker of all time, and some of his hits include hardcore/adult appeal hits like “Schindler’s List,” “Munich,” and “Lincoln.” However, not only did they open at less challenging times, those films also had an epic feel. As a biographical account of Spielberg’s childhood, “Fabelmans” is much younger.

Best comp for “Fabelmans” was Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast” (Focus). His autobiographical story about growing up in a city wracked by violence was one of the top niche releases of 2021; Like “Fabelmans,” it opened in November after winning a TIFF People’s Choice award. It closed with a domestic take of $9.2 million (a much better international, $39.6 million).

Although it was black and white, with sometimes difficult accents, “Belfast” was arguably more of a traditional appeal to niche audiences. His PVOD kicked off after four weekends; That provided profitable division of profits decisively to make it profitable.

Fabelmans could thrive at home, assuming the nominations and potential win cement it in the months ahead. This also points to perhaps its biggest problem: Its core audience now expects home availability early, especially on quiet dramas.

Let’s say Spielberg and Universal knew all this; Public expectations aside, chances are they didn’t regret it. In 1975, Spielberg’s “Jaws” changed box office expectations and rewrote the playbook for theatrical distribution. In his own way, Spielberg might be doing the same with “The Fabelmans”: It might be the movie telling us that even down the Oscars aisle, great dramas by great filmmakers can’t necessarily expect a big theatrical response.

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