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Based on a True Story: Why So Many Biopics Create Oscar Buzz But Become Box-Office Flops

Every fall, there's an onslaught of actors playing real people. We sort through them to figure out why so many get awards, but far fewer find an audience.

Darkest Hour

“Darkest Hour”

Focus Features

Fall is the season of Real-People movies — the biopics that often fuel Oscar hopes. Recent weeks brought “The Battle of the Sexes,” “Stronger,” and “Victoria & Abdul” and there’s more than a dozen to come, including “Marshall,” “The Post,” “Darkest Hour,” and “The Current War.” There’s good reason to believe that a biopic might produce awards. In the last five years, 28 of the 100 Oscar acting nominees played real-life characters, as did four of the 20 winners. But when it comes to the box office, the odds aren’t as kind.

Since 2012, there have been about 100 biopics including hits like “The King’s Speech,” “The Social Network,” and “Julie and Julia.” But while recent years featured real-life characters and stories in some of the biggest non-franchise hits, the format may have reached a saturation point. 

Last year, Pablo Larrain’s “Jackie” received a Best Actress nomination, but grossed just $14 million even with strong reviews. Despite prime platforming, 2012’s “Hitchcock” starring Anthony Hopkins never gained traction. In 2013, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” starring Idris Elba flopped. Cohen Media’s “Churchill” starring Brian Cox grossed only $1.3 million earlier this year, but Gary Oldman is discussed as a prime Oscar contender for paying the younger Prime Minister at war in the upcoming “Darkest Hour” (Focus Features).

Though it received significant awards support, Ava Duvernay’s “Selma” grossed just $50 million. Neither “Jobs” nor “Steve Jobs” generated interest. Barack Obama suffered a similar fate: “Southside With You” received minor attention, while “Barry” went straight to Netflix. “Elvis and Nixon,” despite its iconic pairing, barely grossed $1 million in nearly 400 theaters.

The list goes on: Miles Davis (“Miles Ahead”), Hank Williams (“I Saw the Light”), “Hands of Stone” (Ruben Amaro) and “Rules Don’t Apply” — in which Warren Beatty directed himself as Howard Hughes — found little interest.

"Hidden Figures"

“Hidden Figures”

20th Century Fox

In the age of Wikipedia, dramatized stories about well-known people face a challenge to offer something more. One true-story hit, “Hidden Figures,” bears this out: Few were aware the story of these key figures in NASA. “Sully” pivoted on a universally seen event, but people only knew a few minutes of the story. “The Blind Side,” while based on Michael Lewis’ 2007 nonfiction book, was not widely known. “The Imitation Game” worked as much as a war-time adventure as it portrayed a strong-willed, offbeat character whose name was largely lost in history.

The common thread among these and other successes is that they created a narrative more than just a biography. That’s easier when audiences don’t come to a film with character dossiers and the assumptions and biases that come with it. It also gives the filmmakers wider freedom to create a viable narrative.


“Victoria and Abdul”

There are exceptions: Meryl Streep and Judi Dench apparently have superpowers when it comes to elevating biopics. Streep received eight of her Oscar nominations for playing real-life characters; this year she stars as Washington Post publisher Kay Graham opposite Tom Hanks as editor Ben Bradlee in Steven Spielberg’s “The Post,” which draws from the paper’s role in releasing the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

Five of Dench’s seven nominations stemmed from real-life portrayals, including two for playing British monarchs. Dench earned an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Queen Victoria in 1997’s “Mrs. Brown,” and hopes the Queen will do it again this year with “Victoria & Abdul.” The film began its platform release to mediocre reviews, but her brand remains strong and it’s her first lead performance since “Philomena.” Like “Mrs. Brown,” this film draws from a little-known friendship with a man in her life.

Civic-rights issues often prove to be a biopic stumbling block. Sometimes they work; “Milk” earned an Oscar for Sean Penn as Best Actor as the martyred gay activist. Best-Picture winner “Spotlight” centered on the Boston Globe’s expose of church sexual abuse, although it was more of an ensemble thriller like “All the President’s Men.”

But more often they face the fate of a film like last year’s “Loving,” which got good reviews, lots of coverage, a Best Actress nomination, and strong support. Still, despite extensive play, it grossed less than $8 million.

“The Danish Girl,” about an early gender-change transition, received multiple Oscar nominations but managed only $11 million. “Trumbo” earned Bryan Cranston his first Best Actor nomination, but the Hollywood blacklist drama made less than $8 million. Ditto “Suffragette,” which earned just $4.7 million (and was an Oscar shutout).

“Marshall”

Finally, biopics often prove to be too much of a good thing. The bulk of them show up in the fall, the better to aim at Oscar nominations; last year, about around 15 titles opened between September and December. “Hidden Figures” and “Sully” were breakouts, with “Lion” a real specialized crossover success. Others were less fortunate.

This year will see even more. They include (and this list is not exhaustive):

  • “Marshall” (Open Road), with Chadwick Boseman, about the first African-American Supreme Court Justice’s early legal battles. Boseman starred in “42” as Jackie Robinson, which was very successful four years ago.
  • “Breathe” (Bleecker Street), the story of Robin and Diana Cavendish, a couple who faced polio and went on to become wheelchair pioneers.
  • “LBJ” (Electric), Rob Reiner’s film with Woody Harrelson as the 36th president, opening more than a year after its Toronto premiere.
  • “The Man Who Created Christmas” (Bleecker Street), with “Downtown Abbey”‘s Dan Stevens as Charles Dickens and how he came up with “A Christmas Carol.”
  • “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” (Fox Searchlight), the true story of A.A. Milne’s creation of Winnie the Pooh and his relationship with his son, who inspired Christopher Robin
  • “Only The Brave” (Columbia Pictures) with James Brolin, about the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a group of elite firefighters.
  • “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” (Sony Pictures Classics), starring Annette Benning as actress Gloria Grahame.
  • “Thank You For Your Service” (Universal), based on David Finkel’s book about being embedded with soldiers in Iraq.
  • “Molly’s Game” (STX), starring Jessica Chastain as “poker princess” Molly Bloom.
  • “The Current War” (Weinstein), about Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse battling to corral electrical power, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon.
  • “Darkest Hour” (Focus), Gary Oldman as the latest Winston Churchill in Joe Wright’s film about the early days of World War II.
  • “Chappaquidick” (Entertainment Studios), Ted Kennedy is portrayed by Jason Clarke at the Senator’s moment of crisis.
  • “The Disaster Artist” (A24), with James Franco directing and starring in the story of the making of cult classic “The Room.”
  • “I, Tonya” (A24), Margot Robbie’s bid for breakout attention as the Olympic skater who got a little too competitive.
  • “All the Money in the World” (Sony), Ridley Scott directing an big-scale cast in retelling of John Paul Getty III’s kidnapping
  • “The Post” (20th Century Fox), behind the scenes at the Washington paper as Watergate unfolds, with potentially a slew of nominations
  • “The Greatest Showman” (20th Century Fox), with Hugh Jackman positioned for awards consideration with a platform late-season release of this portrait of P.T. Barnum.

And of course there’s “Dunkirk,” a hit and a leading Oscar contender. It covered real-life events, but did so largely separated from historical characters. Maybe Christopher Nolan is on to something.

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