BFG: Big Commercial Flop in Spielberg’s Illustrious Career

The box-office flop of The BFG has prompted analyses of the otherwise illustrious career of Spielberg, the most commercially successful director in Hollywood’s history.

In 1975, Spielberg ushered in the modern blockbuster era when Jaws smashed box office records.

There have been articles and books about that phenomenon, but what is important to remember is that the level of commercial (and critical) success of Jaws was unanticipated, and that ushering in Hollywood’s new blockbuster era was not only unintentional, but could also not have been predicted by anyone, least of all Spielberg and the film’s producers.
It was a time when American directors were offering up smaller, more intimate looks at crime, politics and society, such as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Dog Day Afternoon,” two of the year’s other big hits. But Spielberg went in the opposite direction. He was a maximalist. His work promised spectacle, of the kind that needed to be enjoyed on the big screen.

Over the ensuing decades, no director has maintained such a firm grasp of the national popular taste. Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and Jurassic Park were mass oriented fare (the term popcorn movie did not exist then) for a generation of film lovers.  As a result Spielberg became synonymous with summer blockbuster season.

“If you ask anyone across the country or around the world to name a director, Spielberg is at the top of the list,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at comScore. “The Spielberg brand is that strong.”  Indeed, prior to Spielberg, only a few directors had such a recognizable reputation outside the industry–Hitchcock was the first and still strongest such name.

But according to Variety analysis:

Popular tastes shift and the failure of The BFG might hint that Spielberg is no longer attuned to the zeitgeist.

The $140 million children’s fantasy echoes Spielberg’s 1982 E.T. in its narrative: There’s a lonely child (a young girl), a visitor from another world and an underlying current of gentle uplift. It’s easy to see why Walden Media and Disney would think they had a hit on their hands. Not only were they getting Spielberg returning to the family film genre, but “The BFG” was based on a beloved children’s book by Roald Dahl and boasted a script by “E.T.’s” Melissa Mathison.


Without a major star, however, it fell on Spielberg to sell tickets. The director proved game, sitting for interviews with Wired and the New York Times, and taking an Entertainment Weekly on a tour of Universal’s backlot, a curious choice given that The BFG is a Disney release).

Unfortunately for the studios and backers, Spielberg isn’t the draw he once was. The BFG, which opened to a meager gross of $19.6 million, is one of the biggest flops of Spielberg’s career,  perhaps only rivaling 1941, his bloated World War II comedy.

Some of the failure of “The BFG” has to do with Spielberg’s evolving artistic sensibility.  His name above the title announced the feature as a film event, while his imprimatur helped lift the likes of “Minority Report” and “War of the Worlds” above the summer movie fray.

Spielberg seemed to turn away from these types of films over the last decade, offering up a steady diet of historical dramas such as “War Horse,” “Lincoln” and “Bridge of Spies.” As he aged, so did his audience. These cinematic civics lessons were primarily geared at adults — many of the same people who grew up watching “Jaws” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” His only real forays into overtly commercial terrain were “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” a financially successful, but much loathed sequel, and “The Adventures of Tintin,” a motion-capture oddity that failed to fully ignite at the box office.

At DreamWorks, his production company, Spielberg’s selection of films to be directed by others, was erratic.  For every “Lincoln,” there were costly duds such as “Need for Speed” or “The Fifth Estate.”

His biggest commercial success was producing “Jurassic World,” which Universal financed and Colin Trevorrow directed.

Comic-book movies are the rage now, not science-fiction spectacles or B-movie throwbacks of the kind that made his name. And when it comes to children’s movies, Pixar is the new gold standard — the company’s “Finding Dory” overshadowed “The BFG” this weekend, racking up $41.9 million in its third week of release. The box office is dominated by fewer, bigger movies, leaving little left over for the rest. In the past, Spielberg hedged against his own appeal, partnering with stars like Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks, but in modern Hollywood, those actors’ appeal is wobbly. It’s superheroes who sell tickets, not the men and women behind the mask.

The era of the big director might have faded or even ended. With the possible exceptions of Christopher Nolan or James Cameron, there are very few filmmakers whose name is sufficient enough to appeal to the fans.

The evidence to Spielberg’s appeal: About 15% of audiences over 25 cited the director as the reason for seeing The BFG, compared to 8% of those under 25, according to a survey by comScore.

Serious, historical films, such as Lincoln and Bridge of Spies rank among Spielberg’s most acclaimed works and, more importantly, were also profitable.

But Spielberg has always been more than just a film director: He usually gets first pick of projects, a taste of theme park revenues and the backing of high profile investors. He’s more a corporation, brand name than a filmmaker, in charge of a major business apparatus. To justify that reputation and overhead he needs more globe-spanning smashes.

Amblin Entertainment, his newly relaunched production company, scored backing from Participant Media, Entertainment One and Reliance because Spielberg still represents good business, alongside cache and prestige.

Spielberg will try to prove that he is still viable when Ready Player One hits theaters in 2018.  The adaptation of the best-selling novel is aimed at younger audiences more interested in gaming.