What if Paramount’s Arrival is a big hit? This is not a prediction. But it’s a real possibility, given the subject matter (alien contact), the stars (Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner), and the filmmaker (Denis Villeneuve, highly skilled, and overdue for a box-office break-through).
The crowd was certainly buzzy after a high-capacity press and industry screening at the Toronto film festival at noon on Friday. “That’s the movie Interstellar wanted to be,” the guy behind me burbled to his friend.
“I had tears in my eyes,” he added.
If the stars align, so to speak, Arrival, which is set to open on Nov. 11, could well become the film that reboots the Paramount chief Brad Grey’s relationship with a new Viacom board that was grilling him only two weeks ago about past flops like Ben-Hur, and future plans for a studio that for years has been stuck in the basement. This wouldn’t be the first time Grey beat the game. The New York Times had him marked for firing back in 2006, but he’s lasted another ten years, so far.
It appears that a collection of production companies—FilmNation, Lava Bear and 21 Laps among them—delivered Arrival, one of Grey’s next bets, on a budget of about $50 million. That is less than a third of what Christopher Nolan spent on Interstellar, a sci-fi epic that didn’t flop in 2014—it took in $665 million at the worldwide box office—but also didn’t match its fatally overblown expectations. The film won a single Oscar, for visual effects, and joined the long list of Hollywood pictures that somehow seemed to have failed, when, in truth, they just didn’t succeed quite enough.
For Arrival, the bar is set lower. Until mid-summer, it seemed as if the movie might not even make this year’s Paramount slate, which was relatively crowded, and already included an obvious Oscar contender, Denzel Washington’s Fences.
Like Gravity, which starred Sandra Bullock, Arrival gets tremendous advantage from its strong focus on a popular female lead. The action and confusion of a science-heavy international space thriller never manage to overwhelm a story that comes back at every turn to a linguist played by Adams, and her relationship with a mathematically minded scientist played by Renner.
Though foreign distribution is being handled by several companies, including Sony Pictures International, Arrival’s China-oriented subplot is also a gift for Grey, whose corporate allies and owners have been courting Chinese business partners, whether as potential investors in Paramount, or as buyers of and collaborators on its films. Rob Moore, the Paramount vice-chairman, mentioned lately that he has made 20 or more trips to China in the last three years. Before Adams and the Chinese are done saving the universe in Arrival, he should probably book another one.