While tentpoles resuscitated moviegoing this past summer with pics like Top Gun: Maverick, it’s true that more adult-skewing fare is having a much harder time now. Nowhere was this more true than with David O. Russell’s Amsterdam, which rivals believed had a shot at opening to $12 million-$15 million this past weekend based on the absurdist period comedy’s glossy ensemble of Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Rami Malek, Robert De Niro, Anya Taylor-Joy, Taylor Swift, Michael Shannon (the list doesn’t stop).
But that did not happen: With a $6.5M opening at 3,005 theaters, boosted by Imax and PLF ticket sales that accounted for more than a third of that number, altogether it came out to a paltry $10M worldwide start. Russell was trying to replicate the success of his starry, 10-time Oscar-nominated American Hustle, which minted a $19.1M domestic wide opening over Christmas 2013, a $150M+ stateside gross and $251.1M worldwide off a $40M production cost. Amsterdam, fully financed by New Regency per its deal with Disney/20th Century Studios, was twice as much at a reported $80M, that being the pic’s most piercing nail in its coffin. What should have been an awards-season play with its originality quickly was sandbagged by critics at 34% on Rotten Tomatoes. So much, critics, for celebrating that which is original on the big screen.
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Yes, even by pre-pandemic standards, this 1930s-set comedy was expensive, so how did this come to be? Based on a projected global gross of $35M, an estimated $70M global P&A spend — which I’m told is the bare minimum for a big pic like this — backstopped by Regency, Amsterdam after all home ancillaries will lose around $100M ($97M to be exact).
While there is a greenlight figure at which every movie can be made, how did the cost for Amsterdam become so high? Certainly, we want to continue seeing original movies like this on the big screen, and not immediately jettisoned on streaming. Surely, a streamer can take a project like this off the table, but then the film would never get the big-blast global launch. Box office-wise, Amsterdam‘s start isn’t far off from where a Wes Anderson-directed movie would be during a wide weekend. Although a platform release, that director’s The Grand Budapest Hotel in its fourth weekend at 977 theaters in March 2014 made $8.5M. In its second weekend at 788 theaters, The French Dispatch did $2.6M. What’s three times that theater count but a gross in the $7M range. So numbers-wise for a star-studded offbeat period comedy, Amsterdam was doing what it was supposed to do. It was even more expensive than Anderson’s biggest bomb, that being The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which was made for $50M and only grossed less than $35M worldwide.
But, again, that high production cost — why?
I’m told Amsterdam‘s lofty price boiled down to its change in location, from Boston to a Los Angeles shoot, and putting the brakes on the production when the pandemic hit in March 2020. That’s when Amsterdam was expected to shoot, and the start date was pushed to January 2021. None of the cast wanted to travel to Boston due to Covid, so L.A. was more prime. The period nature of the movie and the changeup from Boston to L.A. pushed the production cost from a planned $50M to $80M. That’s with a $2.5M California tax credit.
This type of situation, in which production costs would skyrocket by tens of millions, wasn’t abnormal during this point of the pandemic. Once Amsterdam was up and running, there were no Covid shutdowns and no one tested positive despite cases surging by 19,000 daily, and it was smooth sailing during a 49-day shoot.
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Despite all the star power involved, I’m told that’s not the reason Amsterdam was so expensive. Actors showed up because they wanted to work with Russell, some even working for scale. This despite noteworthy conflicts the intense Russell has had over the years with actors including George Clooney, Lily Tomlin and Amy Adams. Bale wanted to make this movie and mapped out the script with Russell over five years of diner meals. I hear Bale got paid under his normal rate of $5M. Oscar winner Malek received a six-figure payday. No one was making any kind of crazy demands, and above-the-line costs repped around 20% of the entire budget. Ultimately, no one is getting any bonuses from a cash-breakeven shared pool as the pic is in the red.
Still, good on Regency to committing all-in to Amsterdam. The production finance studio has a history of bankrolling risky auteur projects, from 1997’s film noir L.A. Confidential to the gritty Leonardo DiCaprio -frontier Western The Revenant — both of which were Best Picture Oscar nominees — to this year’s $70M-grossing Robert Eggers Viking epic The Northman, which I hear the Arnon Milchan-owned company won’t lose its shirt on having funded 50% of the Focus Features release. On the other side of the spectrum, Regency has the thrifty-priced horror movie Barbarian at $4M, which has grossed more than $38M worldwide.
While Disney was receiving a single-digit-millions fee for handling the movie, Amsterdam wasn’t a distribution mistake. Given the vacancies on the calendar, the company moved up the film for exhibition from the first weekend of November, before Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, to an early-October weekend where Amsterdam could breathe — plus, the pic had access to Imax screens for all the Russell cinephiles. EntTelligence showed that of the top three movies this weekend, Amsterdam, due to its premium upcharge, had the highest average ticket price next to Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile and Smile at $12.62. There was an Imax preview day and stars showed up to promote, but it was decided the movie would not go to the Toronto Film Festival, which was a good thing as the bad word would have been out of the bag sooner and probably would have hurt ticket sales even more.
Disney couldn’t platform Amsterdam like an Anderson movie, given the bad reviews and audience diagnostics (3 stars and 72% on Comscore/Screen Engine’s PostTrak). According to iSpot, Disney spent more than rivals on U.S. TV spots at $15.2M versus Sony with under $9M on Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile; Warners near $10M to date on Dwayne Johnson’s October 21 release Black Adam; and Universal’s $7.1M to date on Halloween Ends, which opens this Friday. Disney didn’t go cheap, and at the end of the day, Regency was on the hook for marketing costs.
Social media-wise, RelishMix observed that Amsterdam‘s social universe size at a near 64M across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok was under that for a drama/comedy. “Chatter was mixed-positive with skepticism as fans were obviously thrilled with this call-sheet, plus David O. Russell and his movie track record as well,” RelishMix said. “Convo wondered how singer Taylor Swift would stand-up on the big screen, thumbs-up for Margot Robbie’s dark hair, excitement for Robert Di Niro, Michael Shannon return, #wow for John David Washington, joy for Anya Taylor-Joy, glass-eye Batman Christian Bale’s transformation….skeptics sensed that this could all be too good to be true and were chewing through reviews and other news.”
Breaking down the numbers here, industry sources tell us that off a final global $35M take for Amsterdam that would trigger $15M in global theatrical rentals, net home ancillary monies across home entertainment, a Hulu/HBO Max streaming run, free TV and international TV of $52M. That’s if the movie goes through Disney’s international TV output deals. If Amsterdam does not, then the loss could be greater than $100M, with foreign TV deals amounting to a number in the teens. Altogether $67M total revenues on the movie against $164M in total theatrical and home entertainment costs gets Amsterdam to a $97M loss.
So does the tanking of Amsterdam mean that such upscale adult fare is doomed on the big screen? That will remain the question of what works on theatrical vs. streaming, as long as adults are slow to return to the box office. New Line made the high-brow, risky Olivia Wilde genre movie Don’t Worry Darling starring Harry Styles, Florence Pugh and Chris Pine for a responsible $35M, and it’s just under $70M worldwide. Other distributors including Focus Features aren’t giving up on upscale director-driven fare: It has given Tár — Todd Field’s return to the cinema after a 16-year rest — a platform release (the pic posted a solid four-city theater average of $40,000 this past weekend), and the Uni classic label acquired Anderson’s Asteroid City. Risky auteur fare for the cinema will continue to get made, come hell or high water.
Here’s another way of looking at Amsterdam: a critically panned highbrow release made for streaming would disappear from conversation and menu highlights much faster.
But at the end of the day, thanks to a big-screen launch, we’ll always have Amsterdam.