The explosion in fact-based movies over the last several years has generated a range of reactions among the moviegoing public.
In one corner of the matrix are those movies released with little fanfare or even much of a raison d'être but soon turn into major sensations. “American Sniper” last year was Exhibit A for this, producing little buzz in the weeks leading up to its release and making many in the movie business wonder if this was one more post-9/11 war story Americans didn’t want to relive at the multiplex. Then it became the highest-grossing movie of 2014.
At the diagonal end of the matrix is the opposite: A film that comes in with all the momentum in the world but ends up eliciting little more than a shrug. A film that, despite all the hype, expectations and name-brand elements, produces mostly a whimper of indifference.
That second model is pretty much what’s happening with “Steve Jobs.”
Expectations abounded for “Jobs,” and for good reason. It’s written by arguably the country’s best-known screenwriter in Aaron Sorkin, whose previous two films, “Moneyball” and “The Social Network,” were big dramatic hits (the latter also set in Silicon Valley). It features a constituency-building cast that includes Seth Rogen, Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet, which would seem to make up for its a lack of a single Leo DiCaprio-like name above the title. It was directed by Danny Boyle, the man who with “127 Hours” has a track record of turning studies of existential solitude into exciting cinematic events — and, to answer doubts about his box-office potential, had an unexpected blockbuster in “Slumdog Millionaire” a few years back.
And maybe topping them all, “Steve Jobs” centered on Steve Jobs, one of the most famous men of the modern era.
Yet none of this seemed to matter. After playing in a handful of theaters the previous two weeks in a bid to build word-of-mouth, the Apple-centric film opened this past weekend on nearly 2,500 screens. This was supposed to be the big coming-out party for “Jobs.” But the movie took in just $7.3 million. It was seen by fewer than a million people, averaging a paltry $2,900 per screen. (By comparison, “The Last Witch Hunter,” in which the not exactly A-list star Vin Diesel plays an immortal warrior named Kaulder who must stop a supernatural plague, notched $3,500.)
There’s a lot to assess about what went wrong, not least the matter of whether a movie like this could succeed in the first place. Was it execution — of the script, of the marketing campaign — that did in “Jobs,” or was it the fact that a film like this was never really going to work?
There’s no easy answer to that question — and there will be those who wonder if the unusual three-moment structure worked against it — but a case could certainly be made for the latter thesis. Steve Jobs is a subject we feel we’ve heard about before. Many times before. In just the four years since he died there’s been a bestselling book, numerous short- and long-form news stories, a narrative feature and a well-regarded documentary.
Even if many people partook at most of just one or two of these (and even though this movie undeniably takes a fresh approach to telling Jobs’ story) the glut of material feeds a perception there’s not much new to learn here. For all the commercial elements the movie brought, when you got down to it, too many people this weekend looked at each other and said “Steve Jobs, do we really want to know more?” Then they bought tickets to something else.
Of course, other aspects of the rollout could be questioned too. By now it’s becoming clear that the studio strategy of building word of mouth with an indie-style limited release first — the film-world equivalent of starting in safe mode — seems to be a bad idea, at least if the proliferation of movies attempting that this season are to be believed. “The Walk” and “Everest” also struck out going smaller for a week or two before going bigger; only “Sicario” has had some success with the approach, if of the very mild kind.
The “Steve Jobs” results come with a layer of industry intrigue, since Sony Pictures and then-chief Amy Pascal famously passed on this version of the movie, then seemed to regret it immediately after. (“I feel like I just gave away a seminal movie like Citizen Kane for our time,” she wrote in an email.) There’s no way to know definitively how Sony, with its own production team and marketing strategy, would have fared with this version or any other. But it’s plausible to think it also would have struggled.
For years we’ve heard branding is important in attracting consumer attention in an overloaded cultural marketplace. It’s one reason these fact-based movies have proliferated to begin with — if the big-budget world has its pre-sold Marvel and DC characters to help it build a blockbuster, then grown-up dramas need a story people inherently recognize too. The “Steve Jobs” results, though, show an interesting other side to that equation — there is such a thing as having too well-known a subject.
There’s an irony in this particular case since Jobs’ credo, articulated most prominently in an Apple marketing campaign, was to stand out with unorthodox approaches. It makes sense — you create hits, in whatever realm, by doing something that hasn’t been done before. And therein may lie the issue for “Steve Jobs:” too many people may have felt it was too familiar. No matter how much its subject preached the value of thinking different, you can only do so much with a movie that appears to contain more of the same.