Northman, The: Danger and Absurdity of Bloated Budgets on Violent Arthouse Films.Directed by Inexperienced Indie Filmmakers

Northman: Danger of Bloated Budgets on Violent Arthouse Films

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Large-scale original epics like The Northman, Robert Eggers’ violent Viking tale about warrior’s quest to avenge his father’s death, have been rare.

Focus Features, Universal’s indie label, took a gamble, not only backing “The Northman” but releasing the film in theaters nationwide.

Though driven by mostly positive reviews, the B-level movie is a commercial failure, generating only $12 million from 3,865 U.S. theaters over the weekend, getting the No. 4 spot on domestic box-office charts.

Except for the pesky fact that “The Northman” was 10 times as expensive to produce as your average indie. How much the movie actually cost is up for debate; Eggers has been proudly touting its $90 million production budget, much to the chagrin of its financial investors. They dispute Eggers’ math, claiming that the final figure was closer to $70 million after tax incentives.

At this point, call it a wash. It’s still a massive amount to spend on a very R-rated medieval Icelandic drama, one that isn’t necessarily intended to appeal to mass audiences. Complicating finances, “The Northman” was heavily advertised through TV spots, as well as billboards plastered in populated areas like Times Square.

With a massive price tag and mediocre ticket sales, “The Northman” is already looking like a substantial money loser for the studio, as well as a cautionary tale about budgets gone wild.

“In terms of original content, keeping the budget in check is paramount,” says Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “If it goes well, you can spend that money on the sequel.”

Focus Features mitigated the liability by co-producing and co-financing the film with New Regency. But “The Northman” needs to become a runaway sensation in foreign markets to avoid drowning either company in red ink.

So far, “The Northman” has collected just $11.5 million from 41 international markets, taking its global tally to $23.5 million.

In North America, box office sages predict “The Northman” will end its theatrical run with $30 million to $40 million. Though critics championed the film, a “B” CinemaScore from ticket buyers means word of mouth was mediocre.

That’s probably why “The Northman” was released nationwide to start, rather than as a platform release, which is intended to slowly gain traction.)

That reality means the film has a lot of ground to make up internationally. Box office experts estimate “The Northman” has to generate at least $140 million globally to cover its production budget.

Adding in the tens of millions in marketing means a movie like “The Northman” needs to make $200 million to break even in its theatrical run.

But Focus has a little flexibility in its finances because of Universal’s agreement with exhibitors to put movies on digital platforms in as little as 17 days. Expect the company to put “The Northman” on premium video-on-demand and its parent company’s streamer Peacock as soon as legally possible — and then pray to Odin that the movie becomes instant cult hit.

Artistically, “The Northman” seems to be a success: critics have raved about its visual flair and bold vision. Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Björk and Willem Dafoe star in the film, based on the legend of Amleth.

Studio executives were thrilled with the film and its critical consensus. But in today’s theatrical landscape, traditional Hollywood players cannot responsibly pump that much into theatrical films, if they want to make money as well as art.

Focus is small cog in the media conglomerate of NBCUniversal, so to green light such a big-budget feature seems like a folie.

Other studios have successfully taken chances on less-certain commercial prospects, such as Channing Tatum’s road-trip comedy “Dog” ($61 million) and Paramount’s gonzo sequel “Jackass Forever” ($57 million), because they had kept the budgets from getting outsized.

With “The Northman,” Focus Features is not accentuating extraneous details, like the film’s budget or financial results.