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Why First Man bombed at the box office

The headlines write themselves — "First Man fails to launch." After debuting in 3,640 theaters over the second weekend of October, the Ryan Gosling-starring Neil Armstrong biopic First Man is falling behind expectations at the box office. While the movie brought in $16 million domestically over its first weekend, it was edged out by the competition and left to debut in third place. That kind of opening performance doesn't necessarily doom a movie, but for First Man, it's a disappointment that could turn into disaster. The conditions are critical, and a crash landing may be imminent. Rocket pun. Space metaphor.

First Man isn't flagging thanks to poor reviews. If you go by the critical consensus, then it seems like a movie worth seeing. But there's a reason why many people seem to be passing on the picture during its theatrical debut, and it's the kind of problem the movie may not be able to recover from — whether it's got the right stuff going for it or not. 

The right stuff?

On paper, at least, First Man is a movie that seems to have everything going for it. Star power? Check. This thing has Ryan Gosling, who has been all-but-scientifically determined to be good in everything, as well as the talents of Claire Foy, who's really been on one these last couple of years between The Crown, Unsane, and The Girl in the Spider's Web. (It also has Kyle Chandler, who is slightly less famous, but equally good in everything.) 

Behind the camera is Damien Chazelle, the deservedly-decorated, Academy Award-winning La La Land director who also made the absolutely incredible Whiplash in 2014. On top of being the youngest filmmaker ever to take home the Oscar for Best Director, Chazelle's award-winning musical brought in money — lots of money, relative to its budget. It's based on an acclaimed biography, which is itself based on one of the most impressive accomplishments in human history. It's even got the Oscar-winning composer Justin Hurwitz in the pocket, providing the score after making the quite memorable music of La La Land.

In short, this is not what you'd call a creative team worth taking lightly, and the largely-positive reviews indicate that they nailed the execution. So why is everyone seeming to shrug off First Man? Well, it's not necessarily the fault of the movie. The problem has more to do with everything around its release.

The competition

On many other weekends, First Man could have had the whole box office to itself, and probably would have had a good chance of cleaning up, at least among discerning adult moviegoers looking for some mature and intelligent drama. Unfortunately for Universal Pictures, who produced and distributed the movie, First Man's first weekend was uniquely and unexpectedly competitive. 

As it turns out, First Man had the misfortune of debuting in the wake one of the wildest weekends at the box office in the entire year of 2018, facing off against the one-two punch of Venom and A Star is Born, both sailing strong in their second weekends. Instead of sinking like a stone like some predicted, Venom rallied to a record-setting launch, beating back abysmal reviews to take #1 at the box office with, well, Marvel movie numbers for two weeks in a row. 

On the other side of the entertainment spectrum, the moving, rousing, way-better-than-you'd-think-it'd-be A Star Is Born captured another sizable portion of First Man's potential audience, coming in at #2 for two weeks in a row. As a result of the competition, First Man opened at third place.

Effectively, First Man was forced to fend off some formidable counter-programming during its debut, having to distinguish itself against both another quality adult drama and some sugary comic book schlock. Either one of these alone would have been tough to beat. Together, they may spell doom and gloom.

Round two

So: Let's say First Man completely turns things around. Maybe by their third week in theaters, audiences will abruptly stop loving Venom and completely turn on A Star is Born. Maybe people will start looking for something else, giving First Man a second chance on weekend two. Even if all of that goes perfectly, First Man would still be in big trouble — and it's all Michael Myers' fault.

Releasing on the weekend of October 19, horror movie Halloween is arriving with a lot of buzz behind it, ready to single-handedly kick off Spooktober 2018 with some throwback aplomb. The sequel, directed by respected filmmaker David Gordon Green, is getting people far more excited than you'd think the 11th movie in a series would be capable of doing — and for First Man, that's big trouble.

Basically, Halloween is tracking for an absolutely insane opening weekend, with Variety estimating its performance in the range of $65 million or more. Even if you go by more conservative estimates, Halloween is probably still going to debut to more than twice the box office of what First Man did in its first week. It's basically taking money out of First Man's pocket at knifepoint; the return of Michael Myers takes a heavy toll on everyone.

Pace it out

First Man was produced for a reported budget of $59 million, and is on track to make about half of that back over the course of its first week. But as The Hollywood Reporter has noted, it's the second, third and fourth weeks that will be most crucial for the spacefaring drama. To use a running metaphor, this movie wasn't terrifically quick at getting off of the blocks, but it wasn't necessarily expected to be, nor does it need to be. To make all its money back, it just needs to hold on. But can it?

For what it's worth, the studio is sticking by First Man's performance, putting all its chips on the movie's chances in the long term. At least, that's the confident tone the studio conveyed in the THR piece about the movie's soft box office. 

"Our core audience, adult males, don't necessarily run out on opening weekend," said Jim Orr, the president of distribution at Universal. "We'll have a great run for weeks and months to come."

It's a solid sentiment, but what if it's wrong? Is there a chance that core audience will simply never show up? In this particular release window, it's certainly possible.

An intense story?

During the lead-up to the release of First Man, the trailers for the feature pushed a consistent narrative — going to outer space in the 1960s was insanely hard and incredibly dangerous. The astronauts of the Apollo program were ludicrously brave, protected from instant death by little more than warped tin, worn rubber, and rattling screws. Their accomplishments deserve to be memorialized for all time — and up to this point, at least, they have been. That might be the problem here.

How do you make a suspenseful story out of something everybody knows the ending to? What exactly is the hook here? No matter how well it's executed, that foreknowledge — the "I already know how it ends" aspect — may very well be playing in to a certain lack of enthusiasm for First Man. 

This is not to say that A Star Is Born or Halloween or Venom are unpredictable times at the movies — this is the fourth time they've done A Star is Born, the eleventh time they've done a Halloween, and spoiler alert, Venom wins. But for a variety of reasons, those three movies do all have hooks, buzz, and heat behind them. Meanwhile, First Man just looks good, competent, and completely unsurprising, with no obvious X factor in its DNA to put it up over the top compared to its competition.

The marketing money

Here's the thing about Hollywood accounting — as a general expectation, it's an endless stream of lies. There's a variety of reasons behind this phenomenon, but the essentials are pretty simple: The people who make movies don't really want you to know how much the movies cost. When studios do bother to report a movie's production budget — and they often simply don't — the numbers are often not quite accurate. But the real lie of omission comes from the lack of information around movies' marketing budgets, which are often remarkably high. 

As a rule of thumb, the marketing budgets (aka the print and advertising costs) for the typical studio movie can be understood to be around half of the production budget — and for bigger movies, that's often a low estimate. Think about how you hear about the movies coming out in a given year — you don't necessarily seek them out. People spend a lot of money to implant information about movies into people's minds, hitting potential viewers from every vector possible. In First Man's case, we can safely bet that the movie's real costs weren't just the reported $59 million production budget, but also another $30 million on top — and that's a low estimate. It's in this context that that third place start at the box office starts to look dire — this movie's got to make some money, and it's off to a distressingly slow start.

The flames of non-troversy

One thing that almost certainly didn't impact the box office performance of First Man is an odd bit of patriotism-related controversy, which has gotten a weird amount of traction in the media relative to the effects it's probably had. 

During the weeks leading up to First Man's theatrical rollout, star Ryan Gosling made an innocuous comment about Armstrong's moonwalking accomplishments being not just an American achievement, but an achievement for all humanity. You see where this is going, yeah? 

Bad faith interpretations of Gosling's comment gave rise to the notion that First Man didn't show enough love to the United States — a narrative also fueled by inaccurate reports that the movie neglected to feature the American flag. Thus, according to some decidedly pointed, agenda-driven perspectives, First Man is not just insufficiently patriotic — it's actually anti-American, deserving of shame, scorn, and boycott. At least, that's the story being pushed. Whether or not this notion is reflective of real outrage here is something you can probably gauge for yourself.

So did this patriotic dust-up actually cause anyone who was going to see First Man to turn away in protest? According to The Hollywood Reporter, probably not — or at least, not in numbers even remotely significant to the movie's box office. But the story does serve as an inconvenient distraction, and is exactly the kind of static that a movie studio doesn't want to have to fend off when they're trying to court viewers. 

The long run

So what's going to happen? Is First Man fated to go down as a total flop? Not necessarily — but it's going to be tough. Unlike an Avengers sort of movie (or heck, apparently a Venom kind of movie too), First Man can't be expected to make all its money back pretty much instantly. Instead, it has to pick up profit over the long run — and there's a decent chance that it could happen, provided audiences don't completely turn on it in the weeks to come.

But First Man isn't just trying to make it through October — the goal here is to go all the way to the Academy Awards, and take home a different kind of gold than just lucre and loot. As a classy biopic about a beloved figure, First Man is pretty clearly a kind of studio Oscar bait. If it can stick around and score some trophies, the prestige could prolong its lifespan, turning some profit after its acclaim is secured. 

As The Hollywood Reporter pointed out, this story has been told before in 1983, when NASA movie The Right Stuff debuted to low box office numbers before being nominated for eight Academy Awards. (It won four.) For prestigious movies such as these, the opening weekend isn't everything. With the right combination of good reputation, word-of-mouth, and awards buzz, First Man could turn a profit — but in its first week of release, the prospects still seem iffy. Can First Man go the distance? Only time will tell.