Sure, there were bigger upsets at the Labor Day box office this weekend between 20th Century Fox’s Morgan and The Weinstein Company’s Hands of Stone clocking under $3 million apiece. However, with the onset of the fall festival/awards season, the soft start for Disney’s final DreamWorks title The Light Between Oceans stood out because it looked to have all the earmarks of a potential contender on paper.
It was based on a bestselling novel by debut author M.L. Stedman, produced by Gravity vet David Heyman, directed by critically acclaimed auteur Derek Cianfrance, and featured two emotionally moving performances by two-time Oscar nominee Michael Fassbender and girlfriend Alicia Vikander, last year’s best supporting actress Oscar winner for The Danish Girl.
But Light‘s lackluster $6.1M debut at 1,500 theaters led some to believe Disney abandoned the final release under their DreamWorks pact before the label segues to Universal under the Amblin Partners umbrella.
However, Light‘s dimming at the B.O. has more to do with its DNA.
Let’s start with the source material. Stedman’s novel is a weepie with some rather bleak storylines. Set on a remote island off Australia, Fassbender plays Tom, a World War I veteran lighthouse keeper whose wife Isabel, portrayed by Vikander, suffers miscarriages. Their life seems blessed when a baby girl washes ashore with what appears to be her dead father. The couple take the child in, but ultimately meet Hannah (Rachel Weisz), who appears to be the girl’s mother. Tom grapples with a moral dilemma and soon drops enough hints to trigger a battle between Isabel and Hannah for possession of the child.
Disney held onto to Light for more than a year so as to avoid stepping on its stars’ awards-bait titles from last year: Steve Jobs, which earned Fassbender his second Oscar nomination, and Vikander’s Danish Girl. Cianfrance became attached to Light in September 2013 and started shooting a year later. In speaking to various people close to the production, Deadline heard Cianfrance delivered the movie he wanted to make, and that test polls were quite positive. While the pic received an overall B+ CinemaScore, women who represented 72% of all ticket buyers gave it an A-.
If there’s one executive who could have potentially made a difference on Light Between Oceans, and massaged the film into better shape, sources say it would be the champion who greenlighted it: former DreamWorks Studios co-chairman/CEO Stacey Snider. By the time the film was in production, Snider was off to her new job as 20th Century Fox’s co-chairman.
We also heard there was back and forth between Disney and DreamWorks in regards to where Light should go on the calendar. Disney decided to shine Light over Labor Day for several reasons, chiefly to sync with the pic’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival. In addition, given the competitive fall landscape, Labor Day has proven a solid launchpad for adult dramas generating double-digit million-dollar openings. Examples abound: A Walk In The Woods ($10.9M), The Debt ($12.9M), The American ($16.7M), and The Constant Gardener ($11M), the latter of which landed four Oscar noms and a best supporting actress win for Weisz.
However, some of those we spoke to criticized Disney over their decision to release Light wide in 1,500 locations versus a platform rollout. “Weinstein Co. and Fox Searchlight would have known what to do with this picture,” griped one insider. It would be disingenuous to say Disney doesn’t know what to do with adult dramas: They rallied four upscale DreamWorks titles (The Help, War Horse, Lincoln, Bridge Of Spies) to 28 Oscar nominations, four wins and $800M-plus in worldwide tickets sales.
The reality is that Disney executed the best plan it could for Light Between Oceans.
Cianfrance’s latest didn’t carry the groundswell of critical support garnered by his previous features Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond The Pines — not to mention those were modest-grossing films, ending their runs at $9.7M and $21.4M, respectively. With a 59% rotten Rotten Tomatoes score, critics were divided over the melodrama in Light. Reviews ran the gamut between the New Yorker‘s Anthony Lane blasting, “Stand back from this fable and examine it for logic, and you see how nonsensical it is,” to the New York Times‘ Stephen Holden, praising, “Mr. Fassbender and Ms. Vikander make one of the most compelling pairs of screen lovers in the grand David O. Selznick tradition that I’ve come across in many years.”
As with adults drama that lack wholehearted fervent response from critics, platforming Light would have truly poisoned its box office results. It’s not like Disney had a La La Land or a Sully on its hands and mishandled a surefire contender. Going wide was the best means of ensuring the best possible gross on this $20M production co-financed between DreamWorks, Reliance and Participant Media. Casting Light wide also meant that Disney could meet the terms on a number of the film’s international TV deals. Typically these contracts demand that a film be released on an agreed number of screens, allowing the financiers to hit targets and obtain higher dollars in return.
In booking Light across the country, Disney ensured that the film played in upscale venues and faith-based tracks (given the pic’s themes). In certain upscale metropolitan venues, Light was the No. 1 title over the weekend. In marketing Light, the picture was definitely not orphaned: Spots ran during the Olympics; Fassbender and Vikander junketed in New York; there was a campaign in the field, as well as a digital campaign that highlighted quotes from the movie (a type of promotion also used by other chick-lit film adaptations like Reese Witherspoon’s Wild); and endorsements from Stedman to her fans.
If there’s one takeaway from Light, it’s Vikander’s turn as a distraught mother, with the New York Post exclaiming she is “one of the most captivating actresses on Earth, sensitively rendering Isabel’s devastation.” Some awards pundits believe that Light’s prospects have been turned off in the wake of its opening. The fact of the matter is that Disney and DreamWorks are planning to meet up and discuss the possibility of a campaign. “If they have any serious intentions for Vikander, they should start by getting her nominated for a Golden Globe first,” advised one non-Disney awards strategist. Another ray of hope for Light lies with the Academy’s actors branch, which has a history of finding great performances, not to mention they embrace their alums on smaller titles, i.e., Marion Cotillard’s surprise Oscar lead actress nomination for last year’s Two Days, One Night, seven years after her win for La Vie en Rose. Light stands to make at least 15 times the $1.4M Two Days, One Night did during its entire run.
Asserts one executive, “You can’t believe that Disney is completely divorced from DreamWorks and Steven Spielberg. These are long-term relationships between studios.”
In fact, Disney will be back in the distribution biz with Spielberg down the road: the filmmaker’s fifth Indiana Jones movie is set for release July 19, 2019.
Anita Busch contributed to this report.