Even Martin Scorsese Couldn't Save Guillermo Del Toro's Nightmare Alley At The Box Office

2021 was an odd year for the movie business and it's probably one we'll look back at for many years to come. Yes, movies like "Godzilla vs. Kong" helped to welcome audiences back to movie theaters in a big way, but it was not quite the recovery year that the industry expected following the worst of the pandemic, and certain maybe-would-be-hits suffered as a result of a less-than-great year back at the movies. One such film was Guillermo del Toro's widely-acclaimed, Oscar-nominated noir thriller "Nightmare Alley."

While Disney's Searchlight Pictures did give the movie, which stars an A-list cast headlined by Bradley Cooper, a prime December release teeing it up for an awards season run, the film also ran right into the Omicron variant that deterred moviegoers from (most) movies once again for several months. As a result, the critical darling and del Toro's follow-up to his Best Picture winner "The Shape of Water" made a very disappointing $39.6 million worldwide against a reported $60 million budget.

Not to say no amount of streaming success could save that sort of financial shortcoming, but it would take an awful lot. To add a little bit of insult to injury, the film was completely shut out at the Oscars despite being nominated in four categories, ultimately losing Best Picture to "CODA." Yet, as bad as things ended up being for the critically heralded film, "Nightmare Alley" had a major champion going to bat for it in the form of legendary director Martin Scorsese, who made a highly-public, impassioned plea to get audiences out to see it.

It's just a shame it didn't work.

One legend goes to bat for another

Martin Scorsese, aside from being the man behind cinematic classics such as "Goodfellas" and "Raging Bull" (among many, many others), is also a gigantic champion of the cinema. Not just movies, but the theatrical experience. He does a lot of work to preserve old films and is on the front lines fighting to keep theaters alive. About a month into the theatrical run of "Nightmare Alley," when it was extremely clear the movie was struggling (for a variety of reasons we'll get into), Scorsese penned an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times urging moviegoers to get out and see the film.

Scorsese could have picked any movie in theaters at that time to go to bat for, but he went to bat for Guillermo del Toro and his film about a down-on-his-luck man who learns the ways of being a mentalist in a carnival, a skill which he uses to swindle the wealthy. (Naturally, it all goes terribly wrong.) In the piece, the filmmaker speaks highly of del Toro's craftsmanship and his execution of the film noir genre:

"If you decided to just file 'Nightmare Alley' away under 'noir' or some other category, I would urge you to take a second closer look. And if you decided to skip it altogether, for whatever reason, please reconsider. In essence, what I'm trying to say is that a filmmaker like Guillermo, who gives us pictures this lovingly and passionately crafted, doesn't just need our support: he deserves it."

Disney threw Nightmare Alley under the bus

A great many movie lovers would surely agree with Mr. Scorsese's sentiments, as Guillermo del Toro is a gift to modern cinema, capable of delivering something like "Pan's Labyrinth" as well as a stone-cold kaiju blockbuster like "Pacific Rim." He's uniquely talented and that should absolutely be appreciated. Sad to say though, it just didn't pan out for this one despite passionate cries from the likes of Martin Scorsese. Disney is owed a fair amount of blame for that, however, alongside the Omicron surge.

Originally, "Nightmare Alley" had been scheduled to open earlier in December 2021. However, Disney (which owns Searchlight thanks to the Fox acquisition in 2019) opted to push that to December 17. That put it directly in the path of "Spider-Man: No Way Home," which went on to have one of the biggest opening weekends ever at the box office and now stands as the seventh highest-grossing movie in history at $1.92 billion. Even at the best of times, an exceedingly dark noir thriller aimed squarely at adults would've had it tough against competition like that. Case in point, "Nightmare Alley" opened at number five, finishing behind "Encanto," "West Side Story," and "Ghostbusters: Afterlife."

While Sony released "No Way Home," Disney's Marvel Studios produced the movie and, even though nobody could have known just how big it was going to be, they should have realized that going up directly against a film with that much mainstream upside potential was a recipe for failure (particularly when other competition out at that time only complicated matters further). We can't know for sure if "Nightmare Alley" would have succeeded with a different release date, but it sure as hell would have helped its case.