Tales From The Box Office: The Last Duel May Be The Last Movie Of Its Kind

Ridley Scott, the director behind such classics as "Alien" and "Gladiator," is one of our greatest living directors, and arguably one of the greatest ever. The man is on my personal Mount Rushmore of filmmakers. 2021 was shaping up to be a big year for the Oscar winner, as he had not one but two movies on deck for this year due to pandemic delays in the form of this week's "House of Gucci," as well as the historical epic "The Last Duel," which was released just last month. Unfortunately, the latter movie came and went with a whimper, despite being critically embraced and boasting a truly excellent cast.

But it's not just that the movie was a relative disappointment — it is likely going to go down as the biggest box office bomb of the year, if not the biggest in recent memory. That will have lasting consequences, especially as Hollywood looks to figure out its future in the post-pandemic landscape. With "House of Gucci" hitting theaters for the Thanksgiving holiday, we thought it would be a good time to look at "The Last Duel" and what its failure means for the future of cinema.

The Movie: The Last Duel

Based on the book "The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France" by Eric Jager, this movie had been kicking around Hollywood for a handful of years, with Francis Lawrence ("The Hunger Games") originally on board to direct the tale of the last officially recognized judicial duel in France, which took place in the late 1300s. However, things got serious in 2019 when the rights to the book apparently lapsed, paving the way for Ridley Scott to swoop in. Not only that, he was bringing Ben Affleck and Matt Damon with him, not just as stars, but as screenwriters as well. The "Good Will Hunting" duo were reuniting in a big way with one of the most respected directors on the planet, with Nicole Holofcener ("Can You Ever Forgive Me?") also on board as a screenwriter.

The big question mark was whether or not Disney, which had recently acquired most of Fox's media assets, was going to produce the movie, with its violent story and a brutal act of sexual assault at its center. A report from Deadline at the time stated that virtually every studio in Hollywood was waiting in the wings, should Disney opt to abandon it. So this was not one studio taking a gamble — this was seen as a bet worth taking. Especially once Adam Driver ("Star Wars: The Force Awakens") and Jodie Comer ("Killing Eve") boarded the cast. It was what industry folks like to call a hot package.

Production kicked off (rather inconveniently) in February 2020, with production ultimately shutting down for months due to the pandemic, with filming wrapping up that October. But all of that talent and period-set spectacle doesn't come cheap, and the movie ultimately came with a reported $100 million price tag, which doesn't even account for marketing. While every studio would have seemingly taken that bet, this may well have been the last bet of its kind, as the results were downright catastrophic.

The Financial Journey

"The Last Duel" had its world premiere at the prestigious Venice Film Festival in September and, as one might expect with this team involved, it was met with generally very positive reviews. Be that as it may, we're talking about a period historical drama with heavy subject matter, clocking in at 2 and a half hours. Positive reviews or not, that would have been a tough sell before the pandemic. In the world where moviegoers are being incredibly discerning about what they leave the house for? A nearly impossible sell. And the box office results tragically proved that point.

Released widely in theaters on October 15, the movie opened with a downright disastrous $4.7 million on its first weekend. This would be bad for a relatively low-budget horror movie. A $100 million Oscar hopeful? It simply doesn't get any worse. As a result, it lost a lot of theaters in the following weeks and it simply couldn't do much to keep its head above water. As of this writing, the film has earned a mere $27.4 million globally. It's not clear what Disney spent on the marketing campaign, but even if it were relatively modest — let's be generous and say $50 million, coupled with the $100 million budget — a lot of people lost a lot of money on this one. There are no two ways about it.

What's perhaps worse is that the movie's financial failure has cast a shadow that is overruling any critical praise that might help come awards season. Granted, a couple of Oscars aren't going to save the day, but it sure as hell wouldn't hurt anything. And Blu-ray sales sure as hell aren't going to do it. Still, awards can't cover the losses that have piled up here. Nor can they be of much help the next time a great filmmaker and some great actors want to make a movie such as this in the future.

The Lessons Contained Within

I have no silver lining to discuss today. I have no good lessons to be gleaned from this movie's unfortunate performance. "The Last Duel" is likely going to go down as perhaps the last movie of its kind as Hollywood doubles down on streaming and gets far more careful about what projects get big budgets. The fact of the matter is, these sorts of movies were increasingly tough to sell long before the pandemic. Just look at Ridley Scott's own career, where movies like "Kingdom of Heaven" and "Exodus: Gods and Kings" dramatically underperformed. We're far removed from the days of "Gladiator" making $456 million at the box office and going on to win Best Picture at the Oscars.

Could it be argued that this movie had a slightly irresponsible budget? Maybe. But it's not like Disney spent $250 million on this thing like they did with "The Lone Ranger." At $100 million, if this movie, with this cast, had made somewhere between $250 million and $300 million worldwide, it could have been a hit. That was not necessarily an unreasonable expectation. But times have changed. Odds are, any movie of this ilk in the future will be made by Netflix or another major streaming service, only to get a token theatrical release to qualify for awards. That's the harsh truth.

Disney, from my vantage point, did a fine job marketing "The Last Duel, "and Scott has said as much himself. He did, however, in speaking to Marc Maron on the "WTF" podcast, blame the whole thing on millennials.

"I think what it boils down to — what we've got today [are] the audiences who were brought up on these f*****g cellphones," Scott said. "The millennian [sic] do not ever want to be taught anything unless you're told it on a cellphone."

Is the man right? No, probably not, but he has every right to be annoyed with the state of moviegoing and what types of movies can and cannot succeed in the dramatically reshaped global marketplace we're now living in.