‘Nightmare Alley’ Goes Wide in Black-and-White After Box-Office Disappointment

Here's why it makes sense for Guillermo del Toro's latest film to go wide in a different version after grossing less than $10 million.
Guillermo del Toro at the "Nightmare Alley" World Premiere in New York City.

As Searchlight buyers find Sundance films for Disney streamer Hulu, Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley” will expand to about 1,100 screens this weekend — with 900 of them showing the film in black-and-white.

This version saw strong reactions in multiple showings in Los Angeles and New York, but the color film proved to be a box-office disappointment with $9.7 million in after five weeks in theaters.

The black-and-white screenings included sold-out shows with appearances by del Toro and lead Bradley Cooper. Word of this alternative version was first revealed when the director spoke to IndieWire’s Eric Kohn last month as part of our Awards Spotlight video series.

Del Toro has told the press that he lit his film as if it were black-and-white, like 20th Century Fox’s 1947 original film noir starring Tyrone Power. This presentation, “Nightmare Alley: Visions of Darkness and Light” will play while the color version remains in around 300 theaters. (Some theaters will show both versions.) Different film-format presentations are not unusual when you consider IMAX and 3D alternatives, but this may be the first time in cinematic history that a film played theaters in black-and-white and color at the same time.

Decades ago, when color processing was more expensive, some films shot in color were released in black-and white. For example, John Ford’s 1958 English-made “Gideon of Scotland Yard” was released in the cheaper format in the U.S. And for those who had only black-and-white TVs, there was no alternative.

“Morbius”Sony / screencap

Going wide in any format with a film that underperformed at the box office may seem counterintuitive, but in this market it’s a sign of the times. “Morbius” was originally expected to open this weekend, but Sony delayed it until April 1. With no new wide releases this weekend,only three holdover titles that grossed over $4 million last weekend, and most awards-related expansion held back until the Oscar nominations, the theatrical alternatives are marginal. Gravitas Ventures booked over 2,100 theaters last weekend for the 2015-filmed “The King’s Daughter” with Pierce Brosnan. The result was $723,000, or an average of $333 per theater.

With grosses like that, any theatrical distribution effort to offer viable films and see what sticks has a certain logic. So does pleasing del Toro, whose “The Shape of Water” won Best Picture for Searchlight.

Also: Round numbers get media attention. Budgeted at $60 million, “Nightmare” is about $300,000 shy of $10 million in domestic gross. This also represents the first weekend that Academy members are submitting nominations; craft mentions remain a possibility.

Searchlight sources indicate that 900 dates is more than they expected for the black-and-white film but the distributor responded to theater interest from top circuits and independents. Whatever its grossing potential, theaters welcome anything unique that brings in customers in any number.

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