Late in 2018, Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures was in the midst of upheaval as the founder was reportedly “reevaluating” her film division. As a producer and studio chief, she has been known to fund awards-worthy and adult-skewing dramas such as Zero Dark Thirty, Her and American Hustle—the types of films Hollywood rarely makes anymore. But what is Ellison to do amid financial struggles resulting from audiences eschewing the quality movies she helps bring to life?
According to Variety, the studio’s three 2018 Christmas day films—Barry Jenkins‘ excellent If Beale Street Could Talk, Nicole Kidman’s star vehicle Destroyer and Adam McKay’s divisive Vice—all failed to turn a profit at the box office. Sources tell the outlet that Beale Street lost between $8 million and $10 million, Destroyer wrote down $7 million and Vice hemorrhaged between $15 million and $20 million. That’s especially concerning considering the Dick Cheney biopic was the studio’s highest-grossing film ever with earnings of more than $71 million worldwide (that’s against a $65 million budget, which doesn’t account for hefty marketing costs).
While Destroyer, which earned a grand total of just $1.5 million, was met with muted reactions, Kidman’s performance was almost universally praised. Beale Street (which pulled in $14.7 million at the box office) drew rave reviews across the board and won Regina King an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Vice scored eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, and seemed to be “of the moment” with its polarizing political themes and all-star cast. That all three films failed to catch fire is a major setback for a studio that desperately needs a win, especially as Annapurna gears up to handle the domestic distribution of the next James Bond movie (007 films aren’t always moneymakers).
Perhaps releasing all three movies in a crowded Christmas schedule was a misstep. Fans were flocking to more name-brand titles at a time when there was an abundance of them. Sony’s beloved Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (December 14), Clint Eastwood’s The Mule (December 14), Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns (December 19), Warner Bros.’ Aquaman (December 21) and Paramount’s Bumblebee (December 21) were all vying for the same eyeballs. As we’ve seen in recent years, casual movie-goers just don’t have the bandwidth to support that many films at once, especially smaller prestige dramas. At the same time, fellow Best Picture nominees Green Book (which made $243 million worldwide against a $23 million budget), The Favourite ($92 million against $15 million) and BlacKkKlansman ($91 million against $15 million) managed to break out comparatively.
“If you’re going to do what Annapurna wants to do, you have to hit every time,” Exhibitor Relations senior box office analyst Jeff Bock told Variety. “It’s wonderful to be a patron of the arts, and there is a foothold for these adult dramas in the market, but you can’t ever miss.”
Since Annapurna moved into distribution starting with Kathryn Bigelow’s 2017 feature Detroit, only Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You (which we absolutely loved) has managed to turn a small profit, Variety reports. Other films, such as last year’s The Sister Brothers, which grossed just $1 million against a $38 million budget, have been disastrous for Annapurna’s bottom line.
Of course, we’d rather see a high-minded and artfully crafted drama from Annapurna than a lifeless $100 million blockbuster, but that just isn’t the reality of the marketplace these days. What will happen to Annapurna if it doesn’t accept that truth?