What if you made a great movie and nobody came? This is the question presumably being asked today at Universal Pictures, after Steve Jobs, Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin’s exhilarating biopic-but-not-a-biopic of the late Apple co-founder, sank like a stone in its first week of wide release after promising numbers in major markets and mostly rapturous reviews (ours included). What happened? The Internet, being the Internet, has some theories.
The Hollywood Reporter traces the film back to its origination at Sony, a turnabout seen with comparatively high transparency thanks to last winter’s massive hack of company emails and documents. After developing the picture with screenwriter Sorkin and original director David Fincher, Sony ultimately passed after first Leonardo DiCaprio and then Christian Bale dropped out of the leading role. Sony asked for a lower budget, fearing the film needed a bankable name to draw audiences, and THR posits they were correct; while eventual star Michael Fassbender has played key ensemble roles in successes like Prometheus and the last two X-Men films, he has yet to front a box office hit. (Never mind that such publications also love to insist that movie stars don’t matter.)
Variety notes Jobs’ target audience of adults looking for sophisticated fare may simply have been over-served at the moment, thanks to pictures like Bridge of Spies, The Martian, and Black Mass (not quite sure about that last one, but sure). Slate contends it’s a case of overexposure — and lack of interest. Noting that Fassy & Co’s first wide weekend barely bested that of the much-derided 2013 Ashton Kutcher Jobs, Slate’s Sharan Shetty writes, “After being battered by several biographies and decades of unrelenting media coverage, the modern moviegoer is a wee bit exhausted by anything to do with Jobs.” This is certainly plausible; in addition to the Kutcher film, moviegoers have also been offered up the documentaries The Last Interview and The Man in the Machine, as well as the TV movies Steve Jobs: One Last Thing and Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Forbes’ Scott Mendelson comes to a similar conclusion, wondering if “maybe, in the end, audiences don’t really care as much about the late Steve Jobs as Hollywood does.” But he makes another assertion that’s even more interesting: that the film’s platform release was to blame for its underperformance.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term, “platform release” refers to a film rolling out slowly in major markets before going into wide release — ostensibly to accumulate positive buzz, good reviews, and an impressive per-screen average as a kind of marketing ploy for its eventual run everywhere, even “the sticks.” So, in the case of Jobs, Universal followed well-received screenings at the Telluride and New York Film Festivals with a limited release to four theaters in New York and Los Angeles on October 9. It then expanded to 60 screens and a few additional markets the following Friday before breaking wide on the 23rd.
This initially looked like a smart strategy: in that first weekend, Jobs saw a $130,380/per screen average, the best for any film this year and the sixth-best of all time for a live-action film. In week two, it boasted $25k/per screen. But as Forbes’ Mendelsohn notes, buzz for the picture was actually dissipating over that two-week stretch, rather than building. “Sure, they got two weeks of terrific per-screen-averages,” he writes, “but they also let the film’s news cycle (reviews, think pieces, reaction essays, etc.) play out before anyone had a chance to see it.” Universal originally planned to just go wide on the 9th; they certainly would’ve lost the weekend to The Martian, but might’ve boasted a more significant take overall that the $9.9 million it’s accumulated thus far.
But, to be candid, this is something your film editor isn’t exactly an objective observer on. You see, I hail from the Midwest, aka flyover country, aka not a “major market,” aka not a “select city,” where I just spent some vacation time visiting family and covering my hometown film festival. And while there, I contemplated taking advantage of free baby-sitters and taking my wife to see Jobs — only to be reminded that no, we couldn’t do that there, because Kansas isn’t important enough to see movies when the big city folk do.
Look, I get why small and small-ish indie flicks platform; when you’ve only got limited resources at your disposal, the buzz and revenue of a slow rollout are legitimately valuable (or, in the worst-case scenario, can prevent distributors from throwing good money after bad). But in the prestige picture-heavy fall season, even big-budgeted, studio-distributed, star-led movies adopt the strategy, and it’s infuriating for the pockets of film fans that exist all over the country. It’s hard not to take it personally, as coastal cultural elitism — it’s not like they’re not going to release these movies in those markets, they’re just going to make them wait, for no real reason other than that they can.
There was a time when it was understandable, but in the current climate, the studio platform release is an outdated mode of film distribution. The independent formula which inspired it isn’t even the norm anymore; nationwide audiences are now used to seeing the majority of indies on (or even before) their NY/LA release dates, thanks to the wonders of iTunes, Amazon, and cable VOD. The film culture conversation isn’t just steered by film critics and tastemakers; movie buffs in the smallest towns are interacting and contributing via social media, and it no longer makes sense to make them wait two weeks (or longer) to see the movie their fellow film fans are raving about right now. Two weeks is an eternity in Twitter time — something the folks behind Steve Jobs have now learned the hard way.