I asked my father who was sixteen at the time of the moon landing, why he thought First Man, the follow-up from the Academy Award winning crew of La La Land under-performed at the box-office. He said the same thing when I asked him if he wanted to see it. “I’ve already seen it in real life.”
Director Damien Chazelle, the youngest director ever win the prestigious Oscar was not born in the time of the moon landing, neither was the film’s writer, cinematographer, or editor. They all have Oscars though to establish their bona fides. You’d have to go next in command to Executive Producer Steven Spielberg to someone involved in the filmmaking who was alive at the time of the event, to capture the feeling of being there. The feeling First Man decided to capture, was to focus on the visceral you-are-there feeling with tight claustrophobic close-ups, focusing on the real life dangers of the mission and its scientific nature. That’s a smart angle to go to, but an uncreative one naturally undone by the fact that everyone already knows the ending.
It’s important to consider the release date as well. There are two proven release dates for space based thrillers at the box-office. The first week of October hosted Gravity (2013) and The Martian (2015) to around $55 Million each, and the second weekend of November had Interstellar and Arrival which similarly played second fiddle to bigger releases Big Hero 6 and Doctor Strange but legged out in the end to big grosses and some awards recognition. Studio heads don’t always put it together that audiences have built-in muscle memory. It’s why Solo instead of following the last three star wars films flopped and The Nun (following last year’s It) hit. Perhaps Universal and DreamWorks were thinking that one week wouldn’t make a difference or the competition was to great, or DreamWorks sought to replicate their modest success with the similarly budgeted and released Bridge of Spies three years ago. Perhaps Universal releasing the film on November 9th and pushing The Grinch back a month would’ve played better but we’ll never know.
The story on this film is just beginning though. Optimistically, I can see it making over $50 million domestically, maybe $50 million foreign and with home video and awards attention it’ll make a nice profit. At the very least it will be regarded in the same pantheon as other famous filmmakers second string hits: like Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, Howard’s Cocoon, Eastwood’s Space Cowboys, and Nolan’s Interstellar. It’s just not treading any new ground, so when the most interesting thing about your film is what it doesn’t include, regardless of how well it’s crafted and positioned, audiences won’t immediately want to buy into it. That should be expected now.