Will The Box Office Failure of ‘Steve Jobs’ Hurt Its Oscar Chances?
The Oscars may not be until February, but the race is heating up with each passing weekend of new releases. Every week ScreenCrush will analyze the Oscar race using predictions, critical reactions, and box office numbers to gauge which titles will be the most remembered come awards season.
This weekend proved once and for all that people care more about the new iPhone emojis than they do about Steve Jobs. Or perhaps there’s another explanation for why the latest biopic about the Apple pioneer flopped at the box office.
The Danny Boyle-directed Steve Jobs expanded nationwide this past weekend, bringing in a disappointingly low $7.3M, which isn’t far from the debut of the deeply lambasted 2013 Jobs starring Ashton Kutcher. Even worse, Boyle’s film made only $2.44M on its first Friday of wide release, while the Kutcher-led biopic made $2.6M on it’s first Friday. This may come as a surprise since the film peaked with rave review from critics after its premieres at the Telluride and New York Film Festival, and still remains fresh on Rotten Tomatoes with an 85 percent rating and a Metacritic score of 81. The film even had the highest per-screen average of the year when it opened in limited release on four screens two weeks ago in New York and LA. This only begs the question of why a film with Boyle behind the camera, a screenplay from Aaron Sorkin and a talented cast performed so badly with larger audiences, and whether this signals a struggle for it come Oscar season. But first, in the spirit of all things Apple, here’s a quick emoji recap of Steve Jobs’ life thus far:
Bummer. So there’s a few reasons why Steve Jobs struggled to get people into theaters this past weekend, the main one possibly being how fatigued audiences are by the surplus of films about the tech visionary. From the PBS and BBC documentaries to the Kutcher film to Alex Gibney’s latest doc, does anyone really want another Steve Jobs movie? That question leads to another: What does this one have that those didn’t? Well, prestige. Boyle has films like Slumdog Millionare and 127 Hours under his belt to attract audiences, while those who were fans of The Social Network would likely be drawn to Sorkin’s latest. However, the Facebook movie opened at a time when the social networking was still a shiny new(ish) toy in our lives. Instead, Steve Jobs depicts one man who’s not wholly likable in a story we’ve been told multiple times.
But wait, that man is played by Michael Fassbender. Hell, who wouldn’t want to see Fassy act in, whatever? Most people, apparently.Outside the circle of film critics, Hollywood and movie fans, not that many people, the people who live in wide theatrical release areas, know, or care who Fassbender is. Although critically praised and lauded among awards voters (he was nominated for an Oscar two years ago for his role in 12 Years a Slave), the Irish actor’s name doesn’t carry enough box office draw. Fassbender is not nearly as widely known as Leonardo DiCaprio or Christian Bale, both of whom were previously attached to star in the film. As Variety suggests, DiCaprio or a Robert Downey Jr. type cast as the lead might have filled more seats.
Beyond the content of the film and its cast, it might have been the release plan that hurt Steve Jobs. The film opened well on its first four screens, performed better the next weekend when rolled out onto 60 screens, and then the possible problem came when it jumped up to 2,493 screens. What went wrong there? Jason Bailey of Flavorwire suggests the platform release model is outdated and predicts Universal could’ve made a bit more if it opened straight to a wide release and skipped the two-week roll out. But what if the studio had an even slower roll-out? Looking back at the numbers for The Grand Budapest Hotel (which notably opened much earlier in the year), I wonder how Fox Searchlight’s model of a vastly slow roll-out could’ve benefited Universal. Of course Grand Budapest is an indie and boasts a well-known, though not seat-filler cast for general audiences. Yet it still turned out to be a surprising Oscars hit. If Universal played around with a similarly slow roll-out (though not as slow), perhaps it could’ve dodged the bullet of sharing headline space with “flops” and “bombs.” Taking the safe route might not have earned it much more money, but at least it wouldn’t enter Oscar season with the scabs from a painful wide debut.
Still though, it’s important to note that these days box office numbers don’t correlate with nominations, or wins. While some predict that Steve Jobs’ box office intake could hurt the film come Oscar season, numbers aren’t everything. Birdman was the one of the lowest-grossing films to win Best Picture with a total gross of $37.7M at the time of its win. Although the film, along with main contender Boyhood, opened on approximately a third less screens than Steve Jobs, both had made $26.6M and $24.4M, respectively, before getting nominated and both aren’t even in the Top 75 box office releases of the year. Fellow 2015 Best Pic nominee Whiplash didn’t play on more than 419 screens and made only $6.2M before getting nominated. While these indie anomalies can’t exactly be compared to Universal’s $30 million biopic, the numbers prove box office and audience reception aren’t a major factor in awards recognition. Just look at 2010 winner The Hurt Locker, which grossed $12.7M before getting nominated, or 2012 winner The Artist which made $12.4M before nominations.
We can also find Oscar hope for Boyle's film when set beside another another prestigious drama loosely based on a real figure. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Scientology-inspired drama The Master similarly opened with a strong debut that broke art house records, but soon after fell to low numbers in wide release. Yet the film went on to earn three Oscar nominations in the Lead and Supporting categories. In comparison, Steve Jobs has even better chances than Anderson’s controversial film, since the Boyle-Sorkin biopic is much more relevant to younger generations.
But despite this past weekend’s slump, and whatever future the box office holds for it, Steve Jobs could easily finish off its legacy with a trophy emoji, or at least be in contention for one. After all, those voting in the Academy are the ones most familiar with Fassbender’s face. The actor could easily wiggle his way into a Best Actor nomination, but the competition is exceptionally high this year, with DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Eddie Redmayne, Johnny Depp, Matt Damon and Michael Caine all up for consideration. The film will likely nab a Supporting nomination for Kate Winslet, and possibly even for Seth Rogen. A Best Adapted Screenplay nom for Sorkin is a no-brainer.
The director’s race, however, is incredibly tight, with Steven Spielberg (Bridge of Spies), Alejandro G. Iñarritú (The Revenant), Tom McCarthy (Spotlight), Quentin Tarantino (The Hateful Eight), Tom Hooper (The Danish Girl), David O. Russell (Joy) and Ridley Scott (The Martian) vying for the coveted spots. Boyle would be exceedingly lucky to make the cut. And as I predicted a few weeks ago, Steve Jobs has a pretty solid shot at earning a Best Picture nomination, as well, especially with how revered its been by critics. A win, though, could prove unlikely up against Spotlight, this year's best drama chronicling real-life events, or Toronto Film Festival breakout Room.
As much as the public may not care for a drama about the tech mogul, it’s clear that critics and industry folk do. If the film does end up winning anything, it will certainly gain more money in a post-Oscars bump. Flop or not, you'll probably end up streaming Steve Jobs on your iPad.