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The Post-Pandemic Box Office Claims Another Victim: Steven Spielberg

A light-skinned man with glasses. 1950's jacket and bowtie sits in a packed movie theater next to a young light-skinned boy wearing a sweater and a bowtie. Next to him is a light-skinned woman with a blond bob and bangs. She's looking at the man. The young boy is looking entranced at the screen.
Paul Dano, Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord and Michelle Williams in "The Fabelmans"
(Universal Pictures)
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The pandemic’s impact on Hollywood has yet to diminish, and the latest COVID casualty might be among the most startling: Steven Spielberg’s box office performance.

Do the stories that Hollywood tells about itself really reflect what's going on?

The director’s latest film, his autobiographical story The Fabelmans, opened in limited release this past weekend. How’d it do? As one Oscar-winning producer told me earlier this week, “It’s a disaster.”

While The Fabelmans’ performance is hardly as bad as legendary flops like Mars Needs Moms, Jungle Cruise or Cats, its debut dramatizes the growing gap between cinematic haves and have-nots. (Even Spielberg’s West Side Story was a 2021 dud.)

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The same weekend that The Fabelmans premiered, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever also arrived. It grossed a robust $181 million in its first three days of release, making for the best November movie opening ever.

But like a multiplex black hole from which nothing else can escape, the Marvel sequel obliterated everything in its orbit: Wakanda Forever accounted for almost nine out of every 10 tickets sold (87% to be exact).

Such income inequality has been true all year, marking a radical departure from pre-pandemic ticket sales, when the No. 1 movie might claim about a third of the box office.

Nowadays, crowds head to the multiplex only for blockbusters like Top Gun: Maverick, Jurassic World: Dominion or Wakanda Forever.

The rest? Not worth the trip anymore — maybe later, on streaming.

A dark-skinned woman, Angele Bassett, is in the foreground, wearing an African style futuristic headress and elegant robe. There is a beach with palm trees in soft focus in the background.
Angela Bassett in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”
(Annette Brown/Marvel Studios)
About our Retake podcast
  • Retake with John Horn asks: do the stories Hollywood tells about itself really reflect what's going on? Veteran entertainment reporter John Horn provides a critical, informed perspective at a time of tumultuous change in the entertainment business.

That new all-or-nothing model leads us to Spielberg’s latest release. On an absolute scale, it looked like The Fabelmans did well enough, grossing $40,394 per screen while playing in just four theaters last weekend. But on a relative basis, Wakanda Forever performed better ($41,251 per screen) while playing far more widely in nearly 4,400 theaters.

When you step back and look at limited theatrical releases before the pandemic, the comparisons are even worse. In 2019, all of these movies opened in five or fewer theaters, and all banked at least twice the per-screen revenues generated by The FabelmansThe Master, Lady Bird, Parasite, Uncut Gems and The Farewell.

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Spielberg’s latest film could surprise people (like me) and perform strongly as it expands into wider release, but for now it looks like it will join an increasingly long list of well-reviewed adult dramas that nobody wanted to watch.

It makes sense that moviegoers want to see Wakanda Forever. That they have little interest in The Fabelmans or Tar or Armageddon Time? That’s not right.

What questions do you have about film, TV, music, or arts and entertainment?
John Horn, entertainment reporter and host of our weekly podcast Retake, explores whether the stories that Hollywood tells about itself really reflect what's going on?