‘The BFG’ Bombs: The Spielberg Brand Might Be Diluted But Don’t Underestimate the Legendary Filmmaker
Posted on Tuesday, July 5th, 2016 by Peter Sciretta
Steven Spielberg‘s The BFG hit theaters this weekend and landed with a “gigantic” thud. The $140 million Roald Dahl adaptation earned a measly $19.6 million in its opening weekend, which is a huge disappointment anyway you look at it. Is Spielberg, credited for creating the summer blockbuster with 1975’s Jaws, no longer the big box office draw that he once was?
What or Who Is to Blame for The BFG’s Poor Box Office Performance?
The BFG feels like the kind of pleasant, middling film an elementary school teacher would put on for his classroom when he needs a day off. The film has some moments of brilliance but also a jarring third act that closely follows the books yet feels completely odd. But it wasn’t bad word of mouth that kept people from buying a ticket to this movie. The film is generally liked, earning a 6.6 average critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 67% audience score. So who is to blame for The BFG’s failure?
Roald Dahl Does Not Have Box Office Magic
The full responsibility for The BFG not connecting with modern audiences shouldn’t be put on Steven Spielberg’s shoulders. Not counting the author’s work on screenplays like the James Bond film You Only Live Twice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Roald Dahl’s stories haven’t typically been the recipes for box office magic. The only Dahl adaptation to make over $34 million domestically has been Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Dahl’s quirky stories typically don’t attract U.S. audiences to the cinema. Fantastic Mr. Fox, James and the Giant Peach, The Witches and Matilda were all acclaimed by critics but none of the films earned back their budget in North American theaters. For example, Fantastic Mr. Fox cost an estimated $40 million to create and earned only $21 million back at the domestic box office.
The problem might have been that The BFG never looked like a blockbuster. For most people it looked like another dull children’s adaptation from Walden Media. I can understand why Disney and Walden might think a $140 million bet on a Steven Spielberg adaptation of a Roald Dahl classic is financially promising but the resulting film is much less accessible and marketable than you would initially think, and more like the work of serious Spielberg than blockbuster Spielberg. Not having a big star to focus the marketing around might be part of the problem, but it’s not like this is the first time Spielberg has made a film with a rather unknown young star.
It probably doesn’t help that the film was released just weeks after Pixar’s juggernaut sequel Finding Dory which is still plowing through the competition week in and week out. Its possible that a film like The BFG might have done better in the Holiday season.
Has Steven Spielberg Lost His Blockbuster Touch?
Over the weekend we saw a bunch of think pieces asking if Spielberg has lost his blockbuster touch. I think it’s unfair to argue this based solely on The BFG. This is not the first time a Spielberg-directed general audience film has been considered a disappointment in its box office opening. The filmmaker’s Close Encounters/Jaws follow-up 1941 was considered a failure by most but it has eked out a profit for Columbia and Universal. His $100 million Kubrick-inspired adaptation A.I. Artificial Intelligence earned $78.6 million domestically.
There might be an argument to be made of Spielberg’s most recent general audience films. While Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a huge financial success, many fans and critics were left disappointed by the blockbuster sequel. And most recently the performance capture adaptation of The Adventures of Tintin earned only $17.7 million in its first 5 days of release in 2011.
Spielberg’s recent general audience films feel less accessible and relatable and seem to lack the exciting high concept core of his earlier blockbusters. Both The BFG and Tintin feel like throwbacks — not the kind of stories that kids and general audiences are looking for today.