Box Office: Why Ben Affleck's 'Live by Night' and Martin Scorsese's 'Silence' Fared So Poorly

Screengrab/Warner Bros. Pictures
'Live by Night'

Both movies were passion projects for their filmmakers but are falling on deaf ears at the U.S. box office, where there are plenty of other adult dramas to choose from; elsewhere, the biggest loser of the Martin Luther King holiday weekend is 'Monster Trucks.'

Four years ago at this time, Ben Affleck's Argo was the darling of the awards circuit on its way to winning the Oscar for best picture and grossing north of $232 million for Warner Bros. at the worldwide box office against a $45 million budget.

After the victory, Warners was more than happy to team with Affleck on his next directorial outing, but the resulting film, Live by Night, is proving to be a major disappointment for the filmmaker and his loyal home studio. Gunned down by bad reviews, the period 1920s gangster movie is pacing to gross a terrible $6 million from 2,822 theaters over the four-day Martin Luther King holiday weekend.

Meanwhile, Martin Scorsese's independently financed Silence also is in grave danger. The 17th century-set epic, about Jesuit priests who travel to Japan to search for their missing mentor, is projected to gross $2.3 million from 737 theaters over the four-day holiday frame. While it's true that Silence, which Paramount is marketing and distributing, is playing in far fewer cinemas than its rivals, it's nevertheless a dismal showing.

The reasons for the carnage? Too many adult dramas in the marketplace and a lack of interest in the subject matter, according to box-office pundits. And neither Silence nor Live by Night, both rated R, have proven to be major awards contenders to date, although Silence is still hoping to score top Oscar nominations.

It's not just the two adult dramas that hit the wall at this weekend's box office, though. In terms of sheer dollars, the biggest loser is Paramount's Monster Trucks, a CGI/live-action hybrid that cost $125 million to make. But its fate was almost a foregone conclusion, since, in an unusual move, Paramount parent company Viacom took a $115 million write-down for the family title late last year in advance of its opening. Silence and Live by Night still hoped to claim an audience.

"An overcrowded theatrical marketplace has caused high-profile films by two of the most notable directors working today to struggle," says analyst Paul Dergarabedian of comScore. "It may not be so much the fault of studios giving directors with well-earned clout the ability to exercise their creative power, despite obvious commercial limitations, but rather an overwhelming amount of filmed content that has diluted the marketplace pool to the point where unless you have the momentum of a La La Land, a Moonlight or a Manchester by the Sea, then you are just lost in the shuffle."

He continued: "This should not be viewed as a backlash or mandate against serious content because, clearly, films like Hacksaw Ridge, Manchester and Fences are not exactly what anyone would define as 'light' fare."

Warner Bros. okayed Live by Night even after Gangster Squad, another period mob-crime drama from the studio, disappointed in January 2013. Starring Sean Penn and Josh Brolin alongside Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone — the latter two of whom can currently be seen in awards darling La La LandGangster Squad opened to $17.1 million before topping out at a muted $46 million domestically and $105.2 million worldwide against a $60 million budget.

Live by Night is Affleck's biggest movie yet as a director, costing a net $65 million to make after tax rebates and incentives brought the price tag down from as much as $90 million, according to insiders. His earlier film, 2010's The Town, cost $37 million, while his Gone Baby Gone (2007) cost $19 million. In terms of openings, Argo bowed to $19.5 million over the Oct. 12-14 weekend in 2012. Before that, The Town took in $23.8 million on its opening three-day weekend in September 2010.

Besides its budget, another big difference separating Live by Night from Argo, The Town and Gone Baby Gone was the critical reaction. Affleck's latest movie has a 32 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, compared to north of 90 percent for each of his three previous films.

Without strong critical support, Live by Night — which stars Affleck opposite Zoe Saldana, Elle Fanning, Chris Cooper and Sienna Miller — flopped in its limited debut over the year-end holidays before expanding over the MLK holiday frame. It also is soft overseas, where it opened to $3.3 million over the weekend from its first 25 markets.

There were advance indications the film might face resistance. Its release date was shuffled several times; it had been set to open in the heart of awards season on Oct. 17, 2016, but was pushed to Jan. 13. Then, at the eleventh hour, Warners announced it would give Live by Night a limited run over Christmas in order to qualify for awards consideration.

"Ben Affleck has earned his stripes as a director in this town. Look, every director, no matter how talented they are, from Spielberg to Kubrick, have all had horrendous flops and minor misfires," says box-office analyst Jeff Bock. "That's just part of the machinations of Tinseltown, one that often mixes the combustible business of art and commerce. The fact that Affleck's latest may fail financially and critically likely won't have much effect on the future of his directing career, provided he gets back up, dusts himself off and throws a couple solid punches with his next efforts. Three out of four ain't bad."

Warner Bros. and Affleck have had a longtime partnership, with the studio nurturing his career as a director and releasing all four films. (He worked with recently departed production chief Greg Silverman on Live by Night.) After starring as the newest Batman in Warners and DC Entertainment's Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Affleck is now set to direct and star in a stand-alone Batman movie, tentatively titled The Batman.

Meanwhile, Silence, starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver and Liam Neeson, received relatively good reviews yet still faltered in its nationwide expansion after doing strong business in New York and Los Angeles (it sports an 83 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and earned an A CinemaScore from audiences). But many critics also pointed out that the film is a demanding one; running two hours and 41 minutes as it explores questions like the nature of God, it's hardly escapist entertainment.

"For decades, Silence has been a struggle for Scorsese to make. There was obviously a reason for that — it's a tough sell," says Bock.

Scorsese — whose last film, 2013's The Wolf of Wall Street, was wildly successful — spent a quarter of a century trying to adapt Shusaku Endo's 1966 book about the demands of faith and finally got his wish when Mexican producer Gaston Pavlovich stepped in and agreed to fully finance the $50 million film. Paramount, Scorsese's home studio, then came aboard to handle the pic's release.

Silence was snubbed in terms of any Golden Globe nominations, but it did land on the AFI's list of the top 10 movies of 2016 and the National Board of Review's list of top 10 studio films of the year.

"This is a movie we will continue to support and expand," says Paramount president of marketing and distribution Megan Colligan, adding that the studio will begin to target faith-based moviegoers after initially selling Silence as more of an art house title. "Marty truly is one of the greatest living filmmakers, and this is a movie he desperately wanted to make."

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