Steve Jobs: Anatomy of Flop

Variety Reports:

Steve Jobs, the biopic of the techno genius, was released by Universal in platform mode, opening wide October 23.  Despite good reviews, the picture bombed at the box-office.

The strikingly literate biopic about the Apple co-founder was considered brilliant by former studio chief, Amy Pascal, but after Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale passed on the title role, it lacked a major star, limiting its commercial prospects.

Pascal, whose job was already threatened by a string of flops like After Earth and White House Down, could not afford the risk and so the picture went to Universal.  Aloah and Pixels, which were also made under Pascal’s regime, also failed commercially.

Steve Jobs was too brainy, too cold, and too expensive to make it a popular success. Moreover, Michael Fassbender, the gifted Irish actor who replaced Bale as Jobs, lacks the drawing power to open a picture.

After a strong per screen average  in its opening weekend and doing strong business in limited expansion, “Steve Jobs” hit a stumbling block in its national release.  It debuted to $7.3 million, only a little more than the $6.7 million that “Jobs,” the critically derided film about the iPhone father with Ashton Kutcher, made in its initial weekend.

Going into the weekend, some tracking suggested that the new picture would do as much as $19 million.

What Went Wrong?

Universal believes that the picture can recover. Studio executives note that it is popular in major urban markets like San Francisco and New York, and argue that the film’s A minus CinemaScore means word-of-mouth will be strong. If it can stay in theaters until Golden Globe and Oscar nominations are announced, they believe it can rebound.

“We are going to continue to support the film in the markets where it is showing strength and we’re going to continue to do it aggressively and proactively,” said Nick Carpou, Universal’s domestic distribution chief. “The critics are there for it and the buzz in these markets is strong.”

Bleak Foreign Prospects

It’s still hard to see how the film turns a profit.  The picture cost $30 million to make and even much more to market.  Steve Jobs needs to do at least $120 million in order to break even. Given that the film is dialogue-driven and lacks a major star, its foreign prospects are bleak.  It’s almost entirely a domestic play, and so far it’s only made about $10 million.

“There was an over-inflated sense of how well this film could do,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “Its only chance now is to gain awards traction.”

It’s difficult to see how “Steve Jobs” could overcome the commercial headwinds it faced. Because of its Silicon Valley subject matter and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s involvement, the film has been compared to the Facebook drama “The Social Network.” That film managed to turn critical raves for Sorkin’s cutting dialogue into big box-office and a $22.4 million opening. But  the comparisons are faulty.

The Social Network benefited from arriving just as Facebook was becoming ubiquitous. In 2010, it opened as everyone was discovering the thrill of over-sharing vacation pictures and political screeds. Even as it hit the zeitgeist, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg remained largely unknown to the general public. The story of the social media platform’s litigious origins had the shock of new.

In contrast, Jobs, his genius for design and demanding personality, have all been thoroughly covered and analyzed.  There’s the Walter Isaacson biography that formed the basis for the Sorkin picture, the Kutcher biopic, and endless profiles and think pieces. Steve Jobs is many things, but he is not an unknown commodity.

Few would fault Fassbender’s performance, but his casting may have been disastrous from a commercial standpoint. An Oscar nominee with a series of compelling turns in the likes of “Shame” and “12 Years a Slave,” Fassbender has yet to establish himself as a bankable actor.

A study by Piedmont Media Research found that audiences’ interest in seeing Steve Jobs dipped after they found out Fassbender was headlining the drama. Having a DiCaprio, bale, or a Robert Downey Jr. in the title role may have broadened “Steve Jobs’” appeal.

Further compounding issues, “Steve Jobs” debuted at a time of fierce competition for adult viewers.  Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies,” Nancy Meyer’s “The Intern,” and Johnny Depp’s mob movie “Black Mass” are all appealing to older, thinking crowds’

There is also a wealth of specialty films in limited release like “Room” that are attracting the art-house set.  “It’s the marketplace,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak. “It’s a high class problem to have, but ‘Steve Jobs’ opened when there are almost too many choices for sophisticated audiences.”

And then there’s the movie itself. Jobs was an emotionally abusive perfectionist. That kind of drive inspires great drama, but is a difficult sell. Universal’s marketing team wisely tried to emphasize the Apple founder’s troubled relationship with his daughter Lisa as a way of humanizing him in trailers and promotional materials. However, that was problematic. Jobs denied paternity. That made him a fascinating and flawed protagonist, but one that’s hard to root for, like, or even tolerate.   Moviegoers tend to like their parents to be devoted and loving, not responsibility-shirking and self-absorbed.

Universal enjoys a record-shattering year thanks to hits like “Jurassic World” and “Minions,” and so can afford to lose money on Steve Jobs.  For Sony, it’s another story. The studio is fifth in market share and coming off one of the worst summers in its history. Moreover, it’s still reeling from a hack that exposed Pascal and her team’s “Steve Jobs” deliberations to the world, embarrassing the company and straining its relationships with top talent.

Steve Jobs is a frustrating reminder that in today’s Hollywood, artistic quality is not a guarantee for commercial success.