The Whale Swims Past $10 Million Domestic Amid The Oscar Movie Box Office Struggle

Perhaps more than any other genre, the aspiring Oscar movie has been struggling to adapt in the post-pandemic landscape of cinema, where superhero movies, horror movies, and James Cameron movies are the only safe bets at the box office. "The Fabelmans," Tár," "Women Talking," and "Aftersun" have all been decorated in praise by critics, but a combination of limited releases and premature streaming dumps mean that their ticket sales are currently looking rather pitiful. 

It's against that backdrop that Darren Aronofsky's "The Whale" has limped past the milestone of $10 million at the domestic box office, per Variety. Based on the stage play by Samuel D. Hunter (who also wrote the screenplay adaptation), "The Whale" stars Brendan Fraser as a depressed, grieving teacher who weighs 600 pounds and almost never leaves his home, yet hopes to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter (played by "Stranger Things" star Sadie Sink).

Mixed reviews mean that "The Whale" is unlikely to walk away from the Oscars with many wins, but the marketing has been gunning hard for the one category where it has a shot: Brendan Fraser for Best Actor. Dominating the poster and giving a tearful speech in the trailer, Fraser's performance is one aspect of "The Whale" that has garnered near-universal praise. It has almost certainly been a driving force at the box office as well, marking Fraser's return to cinema after a long absence, as well as a pivot from the action and comedy roles he was previously best known for.

The Oscars effect

With the age of the movie star in decline, it's become increasingly rare for the lead actor to be the biggest draw at the box office. The stars of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have struggled to land hits outside of the superhero franchise, and the current box office champion is "Avatar: The Way of Water," whose star Sam Worthington is best known for appearing in ... the last "Avatar" movie. A few actors, like Tom Cruise and Dwayne Johnson, still command a built-in box office draw, but they're in an ever-narrowing category.

But between his long absence from the spotlight, the contrast between "The Whale" and movies like "The Mummy" and "George of the Jungle," and the general public goodwill towards him after finding out the reasons why he withdrew from acting, Brendan Fraser and the "Brenaissance" are probably responsible for a significant portion of ticket sales so far. With a modest budget of less than $10 million and a pretty restrained marketing campaign, "The Whale" has a lower bar than other Oscar hopefuls. But it has also been criticized as "fat-exploitation," and the praise in reviews has predominantly been handed to Fraser rather than the script or directing.

All of which makes the upcoming Oscar nominations announcement on January 24 (and Fraser's inclusion among the Best Actor contenders) crucial to the future of "The Whale" at the box office. The movie has had a slow rollout in theaters, starting on just six screens for two weeks before expanding to 600, then 625, then 800, and now 1,500 screens this weekend. It will finally start expanding to international markets like the UK and Australia in February, at which point it may prove that the decision to rush other hopefuls like "The Fabelmans" and "Tár" to VOD after just a few weeks was a little too hasty.