On two separate occasions, writer/director Marielle Heller has asked the audience not to think of her upcoming projects as “biopics.” Once when discussing You Are My Friend, the movie she’s making with Tom Hanks about the life of Fred Rogers. Once when discussing Can You Ever Forgive Me, her drama starring Melissa McCarthy as a novelist-turned-forger.
Perhaps Heller has been following recent box-office trends and finding people are shying away from anything bearings of a few big moments that don’t adequately encapsulate a life in a compelling way. the “biopic” label for one reason or another. There are lots of potential explanations, from an end-of-year glut based on Awards Season to many seeming to hit the same point over and over to many being mere outlines.
Often, as with most things, it comes down to how the movie is sold. Thankfully, the movies on that Indiewire list from late last year all fit into a few categories representative of how they were sold and help to explain why they (mostly) didn’t succeed with audiences.
The Last Gasp of the Boomers
You can put a great cast in front of the camera and have a talented filmmaker behind it, but if the story being sold has zero emotional or cultural relevance for anyone under the age of 40 you’re going to have a hard road ahead of you. LBJ felt like a last gasp from a generation still fixated on the unrealized potential of the Kennedy years while Breathe sold a story about a disease that hasn’t been a public health concern for three generations.
The problem with these, then, isn’t that they were biopics but that they simply had nothing compelling to offer a good chunk of the audience. Chappaquidick, which was pushed to this year, will face the same hurdle as it tries to sell a drama about an incident that isn’t commonly discussed and hasn’t been for 20 years.
Writer’s Aren’t Interesting
(The Man Who Created Christmas, Goodbye Christopher Robin, Rebel in the Rye)
You can try to make it seem like all the characters in A Christmas Carol are voices in Charles Dickens’ head, pushing for their story to be told. You can try to show how classic works of literature are the result of wartime trauma and unsupportive parents. You can’t make it compelling, though, at least not for the mass audience. Writers are only interesting to themselves and even then not all that much and not all the time. As I wrote on Adweek, there was a concentration of movies about well-known writers and that’s too much. They were also all about white guys and that’s not hot right now.
True Stories No One Wanted To See
(Only the Brave, Thank You For Your Service)
This isn’t meant to be disrespectful toward anyone’s service or sacrifice, but there seems to be limited interest in true tales. All these movies used messages about how the audience would be inspired by the dedication and conviction of the real-life people depicted in these stories, but they never gave them a chance. You *might* be able to pin the decline of interest in real-life heroes with the constant barrage of fictional super heroes on the big screen, but I’d want to see some data on that. Whatever the reason, all the appeals to emotion didn’t connect here.
If anything, the campaign leaned a little too hard toward selling it as a drama and underplayed the idea that the story involved a future Supreme Court justice. The biggest problem, though, is that it came out before Black Panther. It was sold in much the same way, including an emphasis on the soundtrack, and likely would have received more attention if it came out later this year.
So What DID Work?
Let’s take a look at the movies from that list that did achieve some form of success in reaching audiences. It should be noted, though, that only two of these movies cracked $30m at the box-office, even if they were critically lauded and enjoyed subsequent awards consideration. So we’re defining “success” sometimes a bit more loosely here as simply having a more substantial impact.
Darkest Hour, which was sold as a stirring drama focused on the performance of Gary Oldman, not necessarily on the historic events depicted. It also benefited from riding the coattails of Dunkirk earlier in the year.
The Disaster Artist, which was sold as a meta-comedy about clueless dorks making a terrible movie, not as anyone’s life story. That hook helped it catch on with Film Twitter, which translated into buzz that carried it into limited theatrical success.
Molly’s Game, which benefited from star Jessica Chastain being out front and center in the emerging (at the time) movement to reclaim women’s rights and freedom from sexual harassment. The marketing was very much along those lines.
I, Tonya, which was sold less as a biopic and more as a ride on the crazy train retelling of a story that still (for some admittedly sexist reasons) captured America’s attention decades ago. Again, the focus was less on the story itself than on the performances.
All the Money in the World, which was looking like it would pass by largely unnoticed by just about everyone until the whole “replace Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer” incident made it pop much higher in the press for months.
The Post, which was positioned as being more immediately relevant but was nudged out of the conversation by not only current events but flashier and more controversial films vying for awards consideration.
The Greatest Showman, which *was* sold as a biopic (if a largely fictional one that whitewashes a controversial subject) but which caught on because it resonated as an empowering story – thanks largely to its soundtrack – for everyone feeling marginalized.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.