It’s become as contested a question as why John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson survived being shot at in “Pulp Fiction:” Should the entertainment business see hope or accident in the success of Quentin Tarantino’s new movie?
Last weekend, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Tarantino’s fictionalized take on the 1969 Manson Family murders starring Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, grossed $41 million at the U.S. box office, more than half the total of “The Lion King.”
That opening number was the highest total for an original (that is, non-branded) summer movie in two years.
It was also the highest opening for any of Tarantino’s nine movies, not adjusting for inflation, including his previous high of “Inglourious Basterds” in 2009 and his breakout hit “Pulp Fiction.” It was there that Travolta’s Vincent told Jackson’s Jules that there was nothing special about how they were saved when a shooter managed to miss both with every bullet from point-blank range — “The miracle you witnessed,” Travolta says to Jackson. “I witnessed a freak occurrence.”
The movie business can’t seem to agree on whether what it’s experiencing in Tarantino’s success is a divine shift or just a freak event.
In conversations with seven Hollywood figures not affiliated with the Sony Pictures release — they include studio executives, producers and managers — the debate raged. Was this result a sign that audiences had finally tired of the franchise films that studios regularly serve up in summer and now were willing to pay to see original work, if only executives would give it to them?
Or was it a freak occurrence, a blip attributable to its hit-making director and stars and, thus, a data point with no meaningful lesson for the embattled sector of theatrical films?
“I wouldn’t read any blue-sky meaning here,” said one studio executive, who like everyone else interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize relationships with partners who may be associated with the film. “This movie has assets that almost no other film has. That’s what drove it,” the executive added, encapsulating the Travoltian view that divine providence has little to do with its success.
A longtime studio marketing figure disagreed. “Do we need more proof that audiences don’t just want franchises?” the person said, with a Jacksonian level of belief. “You finally get a big release that isn’t a sequel, and it’s a hit.
“And a lot of the sequels this summer aren’t hits,” the person added, a point the backers of “Men in Black International” ($78 million domestic on a budget over $100 million) and “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” ($110 million domestic on a budget approaching $200 million) can affirm.
The implications of their fight aren’t small. The debate goes to whether theatrical moviegoing on a wide commercial scale can still be saved — a point that has seemed increasingly trenchant with Disney now having the four highest-grossing domestic movies of the year for a total of $2 billion. Just five years ago, three different studios accounted for those slots.
After all, the feeling has been that outside Disney’s mega-franchises, audiences don’t really want to come to theaters to see movies anymore. They want to stay home and stream. Netflix has taken advantage of this by beefing up its star-driven original movies such as “Bird Box,” with Sandra Bullock and John Malkovich, and “Murder Mystery,” with Adam Sandler, Jennifer Aniston and Luke Evans, as well as its prestige efforts like “Roma.”
But if movies like “Once Upon a Time” can hold their own against “The Lion King,” then maybe, just maybe . . .
That is, assuming “Once Upon A Time” is a template that can be emulated. Because spending some $100 million — the film’s production budget — and tens of millions more on marketing isn’t something studios can do every day. Nor can they bring together a top director and massive stars, the skeptics say. The cosmos aligned this time. They won’t often.
To make their point, the naysayers point to all the other original studio movies that have disappointed this year. It’s a wide-ranging list that includes “Booksmart,” “Stuber,” “Late Night” and “Crawl.”
But the believers point to the originals that have worked in 2019: the horror movie “Us” and the feel-good comedy “The Upside,” which have each grossed more than $100 million in the United States.
The contradiction may be easily explained. Those two hits came out in the first quarter. The four flops? All were released in late May or after.
Could both sides be a little right? Original movies work, just not in the spring and summer? The skeptics note that every summer does seem to bring one exception: “Crazy Rich Asians,” which took in $175 million last year; and “Dunkirk,” the Christopher Nolan World War II movie, in 2017. But only one.
“I think this is all about the mysterious art of when you release a movie, not the kind of movie you release,” an executive said. (As for “Yesterday,” the Beatles romcom that has done well since opening last month, well, chalk that up to the Fab Four brand.)
Indeed, those who follow the business say the personalities matter. If you don’t have a big brand, you need brand names.
“I don’t think this is some massively unexpected result,” said Bruce Nash, an expert at the box-office site The Numbers, of “Once Upon a Time. “Tarantino has a really big following, and this cast is all A-listers.”
Of course, the star-driven vehicle has been a dying breed for years. So the very fact that stars can be credited with a movie success is noteworthy. Ditto for directors, who have even less clout.
To add to the debate: Some pundits say the movie may not even be a hit.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” read the Hollywood Reporter headline this week, “needs to have strong staying power to be considered a success.” Pamela McClintock wrote that an original movie’s performance should be judged by its second and third weekends. “[W]hether the original adult tentpole can succeed as an antidote to the Age of the Franchise remains to be seen,” she said. In other words, we’ll know after this weekend whether it’s a lightweight or a Royale with cheese.