The Reason For ’First Man’s Box-Office Under-Performance

To me, First Man, looked cold and with no personality from the commercials.  – Rob Nelson, Deadline comment section

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.

Oscar-winning filmmakers.
Take a look at Ron Howard’s 1995 hit Apollo 13, now 23 years old. It was made by a baby boomer in his prime, who witnessed it and was able to pour their own passion and feelings into it. When the project was announced with Damien selected as the director and Ryan Gosling selected to star it seemed like a biographical no-brainer. But none of the passion present in raising money for his earlier films La La Land & Whiplash seems present in First Man’s rollout. It simply looks like it was made by very smart and talented people with otherwise no connection to the story. That is echoed in the film’s strong but not over the top reviews made by critics that glow for A Star is Born, an arguably more flawed but passionately made film that is a huge success right now.  Apollo 13 made $172 Million in Summer of ’95 and was lauded for its accuracy and the you-are-there feeling this evokes. Perhaps even all these years later audiences still did not want to see a similar version of a story they knew they had already seen before.

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.

One thing I do know. First Man‘s historical precursor Hidden Figures came out two years ago at Christmas (always a good release date) and showed up fellow Best Picture nominees La La Land and Arrival out-grossing them with an on-paper less interesting concept. Who would’ve guessed audiences wanted to see a drama about mathematicians? It turns out a lot of people. Why? Because people flock to see stories they haven’t seen before. That’s why minority starring movies like Hidden Figures and Black Panther even Crazy Rich Asians are big hits. If all the great narratives of the First (White) Man have already been told to great success over the last 100 years, there’s just more interesting stories left for everyone else.

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.

Move over First Man, A real star is being born!

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