Tales From The Box Office: 10 Years Later, Django Unchained Is Still Quentin Tarantino's Biggest Movie

(Welcome to Tales from the Box Office, our column that examines box office miracles, disasters, and everything in between, as well as what we can learn from them.)

There are few directors quite like Quentin Tarantino. Particularly in the modern era of Hollywood where intellectual property and pre-existing franchises are king, the director of hits like "Pulp Fiction" and "Kill Bill" has essentially become a franchise of sorts unto himself. Similar to Christopher Nolan or perhaps Jordan Peele at this point, audiences have proven time and time again that they will turn up in droves just because his name is attached to the movie in question. It's a relative rarity in the history of cinema but these days? It feels downright alien.

But for all of Tarantino's successes over the years, one movie stands above the rest as his crowning achievement — in terms of ticket sales anyhow. That movie hit theaters in Christmas of 2012 in the form of "Django Unchained," a film that represented the filmmaker's first attempt at a western in his illustrious career, which was around two decades old. For moviegoers, it worked like gangbusters and, remarkably enough, provided us with his highest-grossing film to date.

In honor of the movie's 10th anniversary, we're looking back at "Django Unchained," how it came to be, how it became a critical darling as well as a blockbuster-level success, and what lessons we can learn from it in the modern context. Let's dig in, shall we?

The movie: Django Unchained

While it's very much true that a Quentin Tarantino film generally feels like a Tarantino film, this is not a man who likes to repeat himself. In the lead-up to his first western, he had made his distinctive versions of a gangster flick ("Pulp Fiction"), a heist film ("Reservoir Dogs"), a World War II thriller ("Inglourious Basterds"), and even a slasher movie of sorts ("Death Proof"). But so many great directors eventually want to put their stamp on the western, one of the most tried and true genres in cinema.

Tarantino's inspiration for what would become "Django Unchained" came from Sergio Corbucci's 1966 spaghetti western "Django." Hence, the title. But it's by no means a remake of that film, to be certain. Speaking with the New York Times around the time of its initial release, the auteur had this to say about it:

"Because of the Sergio Corbucci movie 'Django.' 'Django Unchained' works good for a guy who used to be a slave, and it's also a little bit of a throwback to the Hercules sequel, 'Hercules Unchained.' But that's all I knew about it. In the case of this movie it was the first scene that dictated the whole thing. I was in Japan doing the press on 'Inglourious Basterds.' Spaghetti westerns have had a gigantic resurgence in Japan. You can get all the soundtracks, so I loaded up. I was actually writing a piece on Corbucci and describing his kind of western. At one point I thought, 'In truth I don't really know if he was thinking all these things that I'm writing about, but I know I'm thinking them, and I can do them.' So with that I just sat down and the first scene just came out of me."

Making a southern, not a western

In that same interview, Quentin Tarantino also explained that spaghetti westerns have greatly influenced all of his work. But as for the movie at hand? He actually doesn't consider "Django Unchained" a proper western"

"I've always been influenced by the spaghetti western. I used to describe 'Pulp Fiction' as a rock 'n' roll spaghetti western with the surf music standing in for Ennio Morricone. I don't know if 'Django' is a western proper. It's a southern. I'm playing western stories in the genre, but with a southern backdrop."

Whatever one wants to call it, once the script was written, the filmmaker set about putting together a cast. Some of his usual suspects were naturally on board, including Samuel L. Jackson and Christoph Walz. Jamie Foxx took on the lead role of the slave-turned-bounty hunter, Django, but he also managed to wrangle Leonardo DiCaprio into the ensemble as the ruthless slave owner Calvin Candie. Rather famously, DiCaprio committed pretty hard to the part, slicing his hand open during a famous scene towards the end of the film. But he didn't flinch, and that take wound up in the final cut. The actor recalled just ahead of the movie's release:

"My hand started really pouring blood all over the table. Maybe they thought it was done with special effects. I wanted to keep going. It was more interesting to watch Quentin's and Jamie's reaction off-camera than to look at my hand."

Another famous tidbit is that Will Smith was originally supposed to play Django. So what happened? Well, as the actor explained, in his own words, Django wasn't the "lead" of the movie. "Django wasn't the lead, so it was like, I need to be the lead. The other character was the lead! [...] I was like, 'No, Quentin, please, I need to kill the bad guy!'" And so, Smith missed out on a huge hit but rest assured, it became a hit without him.

The financial journey

Tarantino's big, bloody, R-rated tale of lost love and revenge didn't come cheap, with the movie ultimately racking up a $100 million budget — his most expensive movie to date. That's firmly in the blockbuster territory, meaning it needed to deliver the goods. The Weinstein Company decided it would be a good idea to offer up Tarantino's latest for the Christmas moviegoing crowd, serving as a bit of counter-programming to the other blockbusters and family-friendly fare out at the time. The movie opened wide on Christmas Day, getting a healthy jump on the long, holiday weekend. That strategy paid off in a hurry, as "Django Unchained" took in a healthy $15 million on Christmas, which set it up for a very good opening weekend.

While the movie narrowly missed out on the top spot in its first weekend, with "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" continuing its run at the top for the third week, it did earn $30.1 million. Accounting for the long New Year's Eve weekend stretch, it pulled in $44.5 million come Tuesday morning. It was off to the races. The movie never topped the charts, again losing a narrow race to "Texas Chainsaw" the following weekend. But Tarantino's bloody western (or southern, we might say) kept chugging right along with solid holds, week after week.

All told, the film earned a very impressive $162.8 million domestically, both in the lead-up to and in the aftermath of the Oscars that year. It also did an incredibly great $262.5 million internationally, as this one traveled very well. That put it at a grand total of $425.3 million worldwide, not to mention a couple of Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for Christoph Waltz. It was an all-around smash that, in its heyday, The Weinstein Company was great at producing.

The lessons contained within

In looking back at the journey "Django Unchained" took to become a legitimate blockbuster, one thing sticks out like a sore thumb — because we are never going back to the world of 2012 moviegoing. Despite its impressive haul, this was only the 16th highest-grossing movie of the year. This is the year that saw "The Avengers," "Skyfall," "The Dark Knight Rises," and "The Hobbit" all top $1 billion, the same year that "Life of Pi" made over $600 million and, perhaps most amazingly of all, "Ted," an R-rated comedy about a foul-mouthed teddy bear, made $549 million.

"Django" never once topped the charts and yet, it still had a path to becoming a huge hit, even with a huge budget that wouldn't typically be a smart bet for a western in modern times. But Tarantino, as we've discussed, is an entity that does not need to obey the rules that the rest of Hollywood does. The audience follows him, and he proved that once again with the $90 million-budgeted "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" in 2019. But even I have my doubts that in 2023 and beyond, giving Tarantino $100 million for something like this would be a safe bet — particularly if the movie were facing stiff competition.

While this movie was doing its thing, "Les Miserables," "Parental Guidance," and "Jack Reacher," amongst several others, were also able to make good money. There was room for more. Now? It's one or two movies in a given weekend, with everything else fighting for scraps. Unfortunately, until audiences start showing up for the bottom five movies in the top 10 in a given week at the box office again, the likelihood of a movie being able to make this kind of money, in this way, is very much a thing of the past.