Babylon is a film that romanticizes Hollywood in 1920s. And just as the decade did, the much-anticipated Damien Chazelle film will likely end up in financial ruin.
The Paramount period piece is set in Los Angeles. It covers the film industry's tumultuous transition from silent films to 'talkies' – not too dissimilar from the industry's current transition from theaters to streaming. And the film heavily leans into the extravagance and hedonism that the 'Roaring '20s' came to embody.
There were high hopes for the film going in. Chazelle is a proven big name director whose had commercial and critical success in the past – La La Land grossed $471M and earned him an Oscar for Best Director. It stars two bonafide a-listers in Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt, with an impressive supporting ensemble featuring Toby Maguire and Olivia Wilde.
Paramount went all out with the ornate costume design and elaborate set pieces – including an elephant defecating scene within the film's first fifteen minutes.
These costly indulgences caused the film's budget to balloon to $80 million, with a similar amount spent on marketing. This puts the profit point at $250 million worldwide. And based on early box office returns, there is little hope in the film hitting this mark.
Over its first weekend (Dec. 23rd through 26), Babylon grossed a tepid $4.8 million. Conditions were harsh, with a winter storm hitting much of the nation and with Avatar 2 to compete with, but these results were lower than the projected $5.3 million the studio expected to haul in.
One of the main indicators that Babylon would not be a windfall for Paramount were the early reviews. Reviews have been mixed and the film has a less-than-spectacular 55% score on Rotten Tomatoes. Most prospective moviegoers will check reviews before committing for upscale films like this. The bloated thee plus hour runtime also probably dissuaded many potential viewers.
Instead of another La La Land, it looks like Paramount got an Amsterdam instead. The David O. Russell film – which also stars Robbie – has a lot of similarities to Babylon. Both are upscale period pieces by well-known directors and feature star-studded ensemble casts. And Amsterdam's studio (20th Century) similarly spent a fortune on production and marketing – roughly $150 million altogether. It resulted in a $100 million loss for the studio.
We will not know the true loss Babylon will incur until it is released abroad in mid-January. But like its namesake, the lost city of Babylon, it looks like big-budgeted upscale productions are becoming relics of the past.