What Went Wrong With Live By Night?

2016 was not a good year for Ben Affleck.

Not only did he feature in both Batman Vs Superman and Suicide Squad which… i’ll be charitable and say split audiences down the middle whilst neither one made anywhere near the level of money that was expected on them.

And then there’s the ongoing mess of The Batman in which Affleck has not only stepped down as director but there are rumors of script rewrites and even those who are whispering that he may step down as the Dark Knight altogether.

But to my money, the biggest mess for Affleck was Live By Night a passion project that was released in the US on December 13 and over in the UK on the 13th of January.

Up until now, Affleck has been a very solid director.  His directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone (2007) (Budget $19 million Box office $34.6 million, 94% on Rotten Tomatoes) which he also co-wrote, was well received. He then directed, co-wrote, and starred in the crime drama The Town (2010) (Budget $37 million, Box office $154 million 94% on Rotten Tomatoes). For the historically inaccurate political thriller Argo (2012) (Budget $44.5 million, Box office $232.3 million, 96% on Rotten Tomatoes), which he directed and starred in. Affleck won the Golden Globe and BAFTA Award for Best Director, and the Golden Globe, BAFTA, and Academy Award for Best Picture. Becoming the first director to win these awards without a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Director. Also, Alan Arkin’s nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in Argo meant that Affleck’s first three films all secured Academy Award nominations for an actor or actress in a supporting role.

The point i’m trying to make is that when Ben Affleck makes a film, he typically makes money which keeps the executives happy, earns critical praise and awards which keeps the actors happy and praise as a director for himself. And as he’s made films across several genres, all of which have been well received I imagine that it was with little difficulty that he got the green light to adapt Live by Night – a crime novel by Dennis Lehane that was published in 2012. It won even won a 2013 Edgar Award for novel of the year.

And by rights this should have worked. Previously the two had collaborated on Gone Baby Gone which had worked well. And yet… something got lost somehow. I’ve already reviewed this film and found it to be beautiful to look at somehow empty and soulless. A very episodic nature didn’t help either. I figured it would do OK  and I would probably never have to think about it again.

Except then I started to hear some disturbing things about Live by Night. First was the reviews. Rotten Tomatoes gave the  film a mere 35% with other critics noting that   “Live by Night boasts visual style and an impressive cast, but they’re lost in a would-be crime saga that finds producer, director, and star Ben Affleck revisiting familiar themes to diminishing effect.”

There was the lack of praise for how he used his actors with absolutely no awards buzz in any way shape or form. And then came the big issue. Money.

Live by Night had a budget of 65 million and probably the same again for advertising but it took a mere 20.8 million dollars at the box office making it the first (but by no means last) box office bomb of 2017.  But it gets worse.  Live By Night had the biggest third-week drop in cinema screens since records began, according to Box Office Mojo. The film lost over 94% of movie theatres willing to show the film. In its second week of release the movie was showing on 2822 screens, but a week later just 163 were prepared to have the movie.

The loss of 2,659 screens in a single week tops that of previous record-holder, Eddie Murphy’s ‘Meet Dave’ from 2008, the sci-fi ‘comedy’ in which Murphy played a space craft which looks like Eddie Murphy, piloted by 100 tiny humanoid aliens, one of which was played by Eddie Murphy. (Budget $60 million, Box office $50.7 million, 19% on Rotten Tomatoes)

That movie, as well as losing its shirt at the box office, dropped from 3,011 screens in 488, while last year’s ‘Hardcore Henry’, in third place, dropped from 3,015 to 519. (Budget $2–3 million, Box office $14.3 million, 49% on Rotten Tomatoes)

So what happened? According to Scott Mendelson, a Forbes contributor, the problem is that films these days have to compete with several blockbusters that both children and adults want to see, like “Rogue One” and “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”

“Part of the problem is that so many of the big blockbuster-y movies… are playing to adults as well as kids,” he said. “So the actual adult movies are fighting for a smaller piece of the pie. Since most casual adult moviegoers go to the movies once or twice a month, if that, if they spend that date night checking out ‘Rogue One,’ then the actual adult movies suffer accordingly.”

Mendelson said there is only room for a few big hits each season.

“There is usually one or two adult films that can thrive in a given season, ‘Arrival’ and ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ over the holiday; ‘La La Land’ and ‘Hidden Figures’ over the New Year. But otherwise it’s a tough going for most studio programmers.”

And whilst I agree with most of his points, I don’t feel that the film would have done better if it had been released in say May. The critical response would still have been the same, what little word-of-mouth there was would still have been the same. I doubt that the marketing would have been more effective, in fact it would have been less effective had it been released alter in the year when all of the big budget blockbusters were ruling over cinema.

Every director gets to make one disappointment and I guess that this is Afflecks. It certainly won’t hurt anyone’s career and it’s a good bit of trivia to have in the event of a pub quiz.

But what do you guys think? Did you see Live By Night and what film do you think most deserves to bomb this year?


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