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Why Babylon Bombed At The Box Office

The decadent opulence of the 1920s retains an almost mythological status in American pop culture. Nestled in time between the horrors of WWI and before the Great Depression, the "Golden Age" is generally marked by a free-spirited population, changing styles and pop culture, and tremendous advances in technology. "Babylon" is the latest movie to peer into this era of history, focusing on the time when silent movies were making the transition to speaking iterations, affectionately referred to as "talkies."

The trailer for "Babylon" features an absolutely stacked cast consisting of Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jean Smart, Olivia Wilde, Spike Jonze, Tobey Maguire, and many others engaging in wild debauchery. Directed by the award-winning Damien Chazelle of "Whiplash" and "La La Land" fame, "Babylon" garnered a fair amount of early buzz, with many believing that it would be a strong contender during the myriad of award ceremonies. This makes perfect sense, considering that the film has an impressive retinue of actors and an accomplished director, but unfortunately, it looks like "Babylon" has failed to meet expectations at the box office. Let's take a look at why.

Babylon failed to meet modest box office projections

According to The Numbers, "Babylon" has a production budget of $110 million, which probably has gone to the huge cast as well as the intricate and decadent set designs. Colorful and sweeping, the film features plenty of dizzying scenes of parties, revelers, and mind-numbing hedonism, which probably helps to explain where some of that budget went too. Unfortunately, the movie didn't do great during its opening week, making a paltry $3.6 million in 3,343 domestic theaters. Although still freshly released in theaters, projections for "Babylon" are beginning to look quite abysmal.

Although many outlets weren't exactly projecting a massive haul for "Babylon," some expected the film to make at least its money back. In late November, Box Office Pro predicted that the movie would have both positives and negatives that may affect its financial prowess. On the positive side, "Babylon" is a prestige comedy with a star-studded cast. On the negative side, the early reviews weren't exactly the greatest, and historical films tend to be hit or miss with many audiences. They projected "Babylon" would make four to nine million dollars in its first week, with a grand total of between 18 to 39 million in domestic totals. Gaming Zion made a bold, although somewhat tempered bet on "Babylon" as well, referencing that director Damien Chazelle's movies have profited before — specifically "Whiplash" which made over $39 million on a $3 million budget, and "La La Land" which made $437 million. They then clarified their thoughts by saying that gambling experts predicted a five- to six-million-dollar opening weekend, which has proven to be a bit out of reach.

Reviews for Babylon were middling

As mentioned earlier, some of the reviews for "Babylon" weren't exactly strong, which may have impacted theatergoers' willingness to brave the winter weather and catch the flick on the big screen. On Rotten Tomatoes, "Babylon" currently has a 55% critic rating at the time of this writing. This isn't exactly a glowing score, and doesn't exactly invoke a lot of confidence in movie patrons.

In their review of the film, Salon claimed that "Babylon" is exhausting, finding that the movie tries to do entirely too much over its runtime, though ends up saying very little by the movie's culmination. Similarly, Splice Today wrote that the first 90 minutes of "Babylon" is a hit in the making, but unfortunately, the movie continues on for another 90 minutes. They then added that the movie would be far better with a few more edits. Leonard Maltin offered a slightly more nuanced take on the movie, and said, "I didn't love 'Babylon' but I can't condemn it either. How could I when its finale is a love letter to movies and the way they can lift our spirits? Any filmmaker who strives for that shouldn't be dismissed, even if he made us sit still for more than three hours." Needless to say, a middling critical response doesn't exactly inspire a lot of confidence.

Babylon may be too long for the average movie-goer

Many critics have pointed out the exceptionally long runtime of the movie, which is three hours and nine minutes of absolute heartbreak and debauchery. A daunting endurance experience for film aficionados, and one that may have proven to be too much for some. Speaking with Collider, director Damien Chazelle explained that editing the movie proved to be a difficult process, saying that many of the scenes were cut, but eventually restored, and this became somewhat of a back-and-forth throughout post-production. Chazelle added that, at one point, "Babylon" ballooned to three hours and 40 minutes, and that he and the editing crew had to chip it back down.

Chazelle continued, "It wound up somewhere in the middle. Like you said, it's shortly over three hours. It's somewhere right there where it felt like it had that balance for us, of the right amount of density and novelistic density of character that we wanted. But, where it still felt paced. We definitely did not want it to ever feel like a three-plus hour movie. We wanted people to come out of it feeling like they'd been on an unstoppable rollercoaster, and then be almost surprised by how long it was." This is the time of year that usually sees people overwhelmed with family, holiday tasks, and end-of-year work endeavors. So, a three-hour movie is more than enough to dissuade people from the thought of sitting in a dark theater while watching 1920s Hollywood burn itself out in a drug-fueled and harrowing tale, all while trying to check off a mental to-do list.

Negative press caused a feedback loop

Another aspect that may impact box office performance for "Babylon," and other movies that have shared the same fate, is the negative feedback loop created by articles claiming that the movie has bombed or is in the process of doing so. Nobody is exactly champing at the bit to go see a movie shrouded in negative articles, and one doesn't have to spend too much time on news outlets to see what we're talking about. Deadline ran an article with a headline that claims that there is no jazz for "Babylon," and that the movie has failed to meet expectations, resulting in a box office bomb.

Variety and Vanity Fair also mention "Babylon" and its failure to generate significant revenue during its opening run. Even Movie Web ran an article claiming that "Babylon" is the second flop this year for star Margot Robbie, noting that the movie "Amsterdam" was also a misfire. These are just a few examples, but it does highlight how negative press can have somewhat of a snowball effect — especially since the critical response has been so all over the place. How great this influence is on the financial performance of "Babylon" is up for debate, but it certainly can't help.

Babylon has some stiff competition from Avatar: The Way of Water

Perhaps the biggest reason why "Babylon" hasn't attracted many large audiences comes down to one big blue reason. Despite the fact that the holiday movie-going experience doesn't exactly have too many adult-orientated movies currently available, the success of "Babylon" may have been hindered by the sequel to one of the biggest movies of all time — "Avatar: The Way of Water." A long-simmering continuation of the story presented in "Avatar," "The Way of Water" is slowly charting its way to box office success.

As noted by The Numbers, "Avatar: The Way of Water" is just shy of $1 billion in box office sales at the time of writing, which represents the vast majority of theater-going experiences over the past few weeks. The draw and spectacle of "Avatar: The Way of Water" may have been enough to cut into the audience that was initially interested in "Babylon," which may only represent a small sliver of ticket sales However, families aren't exactly taking their children to see a movie about the rise and fall of 1920s Hollywood that ends on a relatively dour note, at least when one considers that specific period of time. Still, there seems to be a multitude of reasons as to why "Babylon" has been unable to climb to the highs presented in the movie, though there certainly is a chance that the movie will experience a resurgence come award season. Even though "Babylon" has been somewhat divisive among critics, all agree on one thing: Margot Robbie's performance is definitely worth some accolades.