Experts explain how Amazon movie 'Life Itself,' from the creator of 'This Is Us,' became the biggest box-office flop of 2018

Amazon Studios‘Life Itself.’
  • Amazon Studios gave “Life Itself” the widest release ever for one of its movies – and it backfired.
  • The movie played on over 2,600 screens but made only $US2.1 million (a $US807 per-screen average).
  • It is the worst performance this year by a movie released in over 2,500 theatres.

Unlike Netflix, Amazon has played nice with movie theatres by respecting the exclusive window and releasing all its feature-length movies in theatres before launching them on its Prime streaming service.

Whether through co-distribution deals on titles such as “The Big Sick” (Lionsgate), “The Lost City of Z” (Bleecker Street), and the Oscar-winning “Manchester by the Sea” (Roadside Attractions), or doing it solo with titles like “You Were Never Really Here” or Woody Allen’s “Wonder Wheel,” Amazon Studios has proved to the filmmakers that it works with that it respects the theatrical experience.

But this weekend’s performance of its latest title, “Life Itself,” showed that Amazon is still trying to figure out the movie business.

The latest directing effort from “This Is Us” creator Dan Fogelman is a multigenerational love story spanning decades and stars a large ensemble cast that includes Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, and Antonio Banderas. But it suffered the worst opening weekend for any movie this year released on over 2,500 screens (it actually opened on 2,609) as it took in just $US2.1 million domestically. That’s a horrific $US807 per-screen average.

The movie’s performance would have been downplayed if Amazon (which released “Life Itself” without a co-distributor) had continued its model of opening its movies in limited release. But it chose this to be its first ever to open in wide release. Amazon made that decision even though it didn’t do a big marketing push for the movie, its major talent that general audiences would recognise didn’t do any press (like Isaac) or very limited (Wilde), and critics hated it. The movie has a 12% ranking on Rotten Tomatoes.

“It really never had a chance, especially considering adult dramas need strong critical accolades to attract an audience these days,” Jeff Bock, senior box-office analyst at Exhibitor Relations, told Business Insider. “And why would audiences pay for something they get for free? Audiences love Fogelman’s ‘This Is Us,’ but aren’t paying a dime for.”

But’s Doug Stone said going wide was the only move Amazon had.

“Following the critical reception, trying to build out a run from a limited start would have been near economic suicide,” Stone told Business Insider.

With the crowded slate of films coming once the calendar hits October, which will be filled with award-season contenders at the art houses, and big blockbusters like “Venom” eating up multiplex screens, Stone said that Amazon’s only chance at making a buck was to go against form and open the movie wide from the start.

The general plan with limited released films is to start with a small number of theatres in major markets and feed off the per-screen average to get the movie in more theatres in the coming weeks.

But given the mixture of bad reviews for “Life Itself” matched with the much more enticing titles coming soon, it would have been extremely difficult to expand the release.

“It may have been in Amazon’s best interest to strike the best deal with as many theatres as possible now rather than try to release a film that would likely fail on a roll-out basis,” Stone said.

But don’t expect Amazon Studios to lick its wounds that long. By the end of October, it will be releasing two of the most anticipated movies of the fall: the Oscar-buzzing “Beautiful Boy” (October 12) starring Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet, followed by Suspiria (October 26), a reboot of Dario Argento’s classic 1977 horror movie.

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