'Steve Jobs' Doesn't Click: Why Sony Was Right to Pass

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Danny Boyle's film starring Michael Fassbender as the iconic Apple co-founder failed to rally moviegoers in much of the country — nearly a year after former Sony Pictures chairman Amy Pascal had enough concerns that she let the project move to Universal.

In August 2014, a top Sony marketing executive warned co-chairman Amy Pascal that Steve Jobs needed a major star to overcome its marketing challenges. Otherwise, its lifetime gross at the North American box office could top out in the mid-$30 million range.

Michael Pavlic, president of creative advertising, may turn out to be right. Over the weekend, Steve Jobs, starring Michael Fassbender and directed by Danny Boyle, opened to $7.3 million from 2,493 theaters as Universal expanded the critical darling nationwide following a stellar limited launch two weeks ago. Universal and the major studios are in the business of wide releases backed by a major marketing spend, not platform offerings, yet Jobs is playing like a quintessential specialty release.

The inability to galvanize moviegoers in many parts of the country despite a script by Aaron Sorkin, glowing reviews and Jobs' legacy is an unexpected twist to a Hollywood drama that saw Pascal's judgment widely questioned for letting producer Scott Rudin take the project to Universal in late November 2014 after Boyle cast Fassbender as the lead. (A month later, Sony would be hacked, ultimately leading to Pascal's exit).

Steve Jobs overindexed in upscale theaters in New York and Los Angeles, where awards voters are concentrated, and in cities including Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Miami, Toronto and the San Francisco Bay Area, home of Silicon Valley and Apple. It also did well in high-tech hubs Seattle and Austin.

"We're going to redouble our efforts to support these markets," said Universal domestic distribution chief Nic Carpou. "It's working great in these theaters now, and we want to make sure it continues to do so."

Universal wouldn't comment on its decision to go wide with Steve Jobs, versus sticking to a platform run until Golden Globe and Oscar nominations are announced. Oscar winners including The King's Speech and Birdman played for weeks in select theaters before attempting a nationwide break. And Birdman never played in more than 1,213 theaters.

When putting Steve Jobs together, Pascal was worried about the film's commercial prospects, since Sorkin's script was essentially a three-act play, versus a broader biopic like Sony's Social Network, about Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg. Directed by David Fincher and written by Sorkin, Social Network debuted to $22.4 million in early October 2011, on its way to earning $97 million domestically and $128 million overseas.

Leonardo DiCaprio was the first choice to play Jobs, followed by Christian Bale. After the two actors passed and Fassbender came aboard, Pascal told Rudin and Boyle they had to bring down the $33 million budget to $25 million, but Rudin said no and struck a new deal with Universal at a budget of $30 million.

"It has to be able to be realized at a decent number right? Still DiCaprio and Danny Boyle? That's the other thing  this can't be without a star playing Jobs and can't be done by just anyone," Pavlic had written in an August 2014 email to Pascal that came to light during the Sony hack. "Obviously. The script is a perfect 10 but in the wrong hands it grosses mid 30's."

"Let's take the obvious off the table here — there are marketing liabilities to this script. It's long, it's claustrophobic, it's talky, it could be a play, it risks being all one medium close up, it's periody," Pavlic wrote.

Sony and Sorkin had major concerns about whether Fassbender was enough of a name to draw in audiences. While the actor is a favorite of filmmakers, he has yet to break out as a major star. Awards attention for Steve Jobs could help Fassbender, but the movie's box-office performance could put pressure on his upcoming projects. Universal has yet to set a release date for The Snowman, while Fox hasn't announced a date for Prometheus 2.

The actor is currently shooting Fox's Assassin's Creed, due out Dec. 21, 2016.

Some had speculated that the high-tech community would reject Steve Jobs after some of those close to Jobs criticized how he is portrayed. As it turns out, the movie's fourth-top grossing theater was the Cinemark Century Cinema 16 in Mountain View, Calif., less than 10 miles away from Apple headquarters. It also drew big crowds at theaters in nearby Redwood City and in downtown San Francisco.

Otherwise, one rival studio executive believes the majority of moviegoers aren't interested in seeing a movie about Steve Jobs, since much of his story is known.

"Put it this way, 21 percent of the theaters playing the movie accounted for roughly 57 percent of the total gross. That's huge," says one box office analyst with access to grosses. "Conversely, 39 percent of theaters did less than $1,000."

Paul Dergarabedian, Rentrack's box office analyst, notes, "Often sophisticated, intellectually charged movies like Steve Jobs have a a tough time gaining huge acceptance by a general audience. They play well in the major cities and among the intelligentsia and then have a tougher time gaining acceptance in wide release."

He adds, "That said, it's a great movie and it's box office performance should not impact it's Oscar prospects. After all, it's the Oscars not the People's Choice Awards."