War Is Heaven for Box Office: Why ‘1917’ Was a Safe Bet at a $100 Million Budget

Partners Amblin and Reliance spent big on an original movie, which sounds like a risk — but is it? History suggests otherwise.
George MacKay as Schofield in "1917," the new epic from Oscar®-winning filmmaker Sam Mendes.
Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

Sam Mendes’ “1917” opens wide this weekend with high expectations after very strong initial limited engagements. Estimates range from $25 million up to $35 million for its 3,200 theater domestic run, bolstered by Golden Globe wins and mostly favorable reviews. However, that’s not its biggest draw: “1917” is the latest in a century-long history of high-profile war movies that capture both success and prestige, and often become classics.

“1917” is set in the killing fields of northeastern Europe, where for nearly four years Allied and German soldiers slaughtered each other with very little to show for it. World War I paralleled the growth of the movie industry; as film historian Kevin Brownlow noted in his 1979 “The War, the West and the Wilderness,” the war shaped the medium. It advanced its appeal with feature films and early newsreels, as well as technology as battlefield filmmakers improvised to shoot footage.

Flash forward a century and war movies have been a presence in every decade. At one point they vied with Westerns as the most consistent genre, but today they’ve been reduced to a niche. (The West is constantly receding, but war is forever.) There’s good reason why its producers (Amblin/Dreamworks and New Republic) would risk $100 million on “1917” — a non-franchise, original title with no star names to attract audiences.

High Risk/High Reward

They don’t necessarily have to be hugely expensive (“Zero Dark Thirty” and “Hacksaw Ridge” each cost $40 million, “American Sniper” $60 million) and the success rate is excellent. “Sniper” and the $100 million “Dunkirk” each grossed over $500 million worldwide; less expensive titles also showed profit.

They Attract Top Talent

Recent directors include Sam Mendes, Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, David O. Russell, Quentin Tarantino, Roland Emmerich, Michael Bay, and Peter Berg. Many are Oscar winners, and all of them made major hits in other genres.

“The Hurt Locker”

High Rate of Oscar Success

At least nine war films have been Best Picture winners, from the “Wings” through “The Hurt Locker, ” and there’s about seven others with wartime settings. “1917” should mark the ninth war film Best Picture nominee in the last 14 years. Compare that to the token recognition of films from other top genres (comedy, horror, comic book, romance).

Recent speculation about the bias against women directors in awards contests suggests many voters prefer the elements that unite male nominees’ films — flash, bombast, scale. Contrast that with (yes, generalizing but…) elements like subtlety, nuance, complex characters that often are seen in female-directed films. The sole woman ever to win a directing Oscar is Kathryn Bigelow, for “The Hurt Locker.” Top films directed by women are less likely to be noticed by Academy craft categories, which then bleeds over to broader support for their films.

They Draw Men Across All Ages

War is alluring with its adrenaline rush from the action, the risk, and the bonding that comes with combat. Movies are ideally suited to capture this, capturing a thrill similar to what’s achieved with spectator sports.

“The Green Berets” in 1968 was pro-war; “Apocalypse Now,” “The Deer Hunter,” and “Platoon” were far more skeptical and challenging. All drew disproportionate numbers of male ticket buyers; they delivered action and enough audience satisfaction to make their points of view secondary.

How many genres can offer that easy path to success and prestige? Roland Emmerich’s derided “Midway” will lose money at $100 million cost, but received an A Cinemascore, more than tripled its opening weekend (a sign of good word of mouth), and grossed $121 million worldwide. Its domestic take was only slightly less than last year’s “Terminator” and “X-Men” offerings.

They Have Worldwide Interest

The specific stories can affect the domestic/foreign ratio; “Sniper” and its strong American slant came close to two-thirds domestic but still grossed $200 million overseas, while “Dunkirk” was two-thirds foreign. However, this is a genre that offers male-centered stories, action, and universal themes that transcend local limitation. That’s a formula studios crave and it elevates the genre far ahead of others competing for the limited dollars they are willing to spend on non-franchise/sequel product.

“1917”Universal Pictures

Where “1917” Fits In

Top talent? Sam Mendes has an Oscar and is coming off two massive James Bond films. Awards? “1917” is in the top tier of viable contenders to win Best Picture, and (mostly in craft categories) should be one of the top nominees on Monday.

International appeal? This is set for release, on a scale at or near the domestic expansion, in most of the world. (China is still not dated, with perhaps the R rating causing some delay.) That rarely happens for an original film. It’s receiving a quicker international release than “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” despite Tarantino, its cast, and awareness out of Cannes.

Our weekend prediction is higher than consensus, at $30 million-$35 million domestic. Even if it’s less, with nominations on Monday, a holiday weekend ahead, and historical precedent, this could see a domestic return of $150 million and at least the same overseas, probably more.

And that’s why it got made. As always, it’s a crapshoot. But a far safer one than most original films with this expense.

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