The Ballad of Paramount Pictures
very much aware that its commercial potential was low. Like all of Garland’s previous movies, its weirdness seemed to promise that it would be rejected by the general public, destined for cult adoration.
Once its opening weekend came to a close, those predictions of failure came true. The film financially tanked, likely due to negative word of mouth or the fact that the movie simply was not what was advertised, just like “mother!.” Then I started reading articles that showed I wasn’t the only one comparing these movies. In addition to having similar pre-release narratives (its directors and leading actresses were coming off hot streaks; advertisements painted them as accessible, if mysterious, thrillers), both movies are Paramount Pictures commodities.
For years, the studio has been rather unpredictable as to what projects it will back. The company will support the Transformers movies as fervently as auteurist works like Anomalisa and Everybody Wants Some!!. Some could argue that Paramount has even generated its own version of the “one for them, one for me” ideology adhered to by actors and directors aplenty. Except in the studio’s case, the “them” is an easy-to-please general public looking for a good time and the “me” is open-minded cinemagoers who aren’t opposed to more difficult works of escapism.
This has worked, with some inevitable wiggle room, for Paramount in the past. Consider its 2007 filmography, which exemplified an idealized version of the aforementioned model by distributing prestige pictures (There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, Sweeney Todd) that were nearly as profitable as the films primarily meant to be financial heavy hitters (Transformers, Shrek the Third).
In the years since, though, Paramount’s successes have grown increasingly few and far between. While it has dependably distributed flight risks which emphasize quality (The Fighter, Young Adult, The Big Short), and while it’s had moments of unthinkable fortune (The Avengers, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation), their business practices have proven progressively inconsistent and sometimes misguided.
This has been especially evident since 2016. That year, almost all of the studio’s prestige pictures, like Florence Foster Jenkins, Silence, and Allied, received good notices but didn’t make much of a financial splash. Popcorn pictures meant to collect cash rather than trophies fared even worse: Monster Trucks, Office Christmas Party, and Ghost in the Shell all but disappeared from theaters just weeks after their initial releases, barely earning their budgets back domestically, if that. (Though Star Trek Beyond and Arrival did well.)
Movies like mother! and Annihilation, as great as I think they are, are only contributing to Paramount’s downward spiral. Not a single movie the studio distributed in 2017 was domestically remunerative with the exception of Transformers: The Last Knight, which still underperformed. Thus far, 2018 has been comparably paltry.
The upcoming months don’t look too bright either. Only a Mission: Impossible sequel and a Transformers prequel are the surefire hits among the seven upcoming releases. And if those don’t succeed, Paramount, which is already struggling to stay afloat, is heading toward trouble.
As a filmgoer who appreciates the studio’s long history of putting faith in great directors and innovative projects, it’s dispiriting to see its affinity for risk-taking is starting to hurt more than help. In an era where challenging and individualistic films are often saddled with limited distribution and are therefore harder to come by, it’s laudable for a major movie studio to make an effort to bring quality to your local Regal. I yearn for more movies like mother! and Annihilation. But the hurdles Paramount continues to face make me wonder if that’s just naïve and wishful.
- MARCH 2, 2018
This piece also appeared in The Daily.
Will the studio’s fondness for risk-taking be its downfall?
bout a week ago, I saw Annihilation, a sci-fi blockbuster hopeful written and directed by cult filmmaker Alex Garland. While exiting the theater, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, last year’s wayward cinematic black sheep no one could agree on. Like the latter film, Annihilation is strange and sinister, determined to confound and provoke.
Even though I was ecstatic about the film I had just seen, I was