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The Weekend Movie Takeaway: Oscar® Contender '1917' Leads the Weekend Box Office

January 13, 2020
2 min read time

One major Oscar® contender emphatically proved itself at the box office this past weekend, slipping into the race for wide audiences right before nominations were announced.

The World War I epic 1917, directed by Sam Mendes (who co-wrote the screenplay with Krysty Wilson-Cairns), took in an impressive $36.5 million over the weekend, its wide appeal clearly enhanced by a bold narrative technique. Combined with its take from when the film opened in limited release around Christmas to qualify for this year's Oscar race, 1917’s total haul is now just over $39 million.

Much of the attention surrounding the film has focused on the fact that it appears to take place in a single take. There are a couple of subtle edits, and a sleep-assisted time jump, but for the most part, 1917 plays out in real-time without any cuts. It's not a new idea, see: Hitchcock's 1948 film Rope, but few films have ever deployed it so effectively. The technique also undeniably enhances the intimacy of the narrative.

1917 just came off the back of a Best Picture – Drama win at the Golden Globes® at the beginning of last week, and its box office success points to how central awards shows can be in determining the degree to which audiences will embrace a bold, new narrative.

Holiday season holdovers Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and Jumanji: The Next Level are still drawing large enough audiences to garner the second and third positions in the box office charts, ahead of the second highest-placing new release (after 1917): the Tiffany Haddish/Rose Byrne comedy Like A Boss, which took in $10 million. It's a respectable number for a film released during a period when films that aren't being positioned as awards contenders don't come with particularly high box office expectations.

Last week’s other new release was the Kristen Stewart sci-fi thriller Underwater, which came in at number seven with a haul of...$7 million. While the success of 1917 is an encouraging sign for the state of original (i.e., non-sequel, non-reboot, non-remake) cinema, the meagre showing for this delightful genre exercise is not.

Using the word “original” to describe Underwater might raise an eyebrow or two, considering how much inspiration it takes from earlier films such as Aliens, The Abyss, Leviathan and Deep Star Six, it nevertheless stands as an increasingly rare example of a decently-budgeted studio genre film that doesn't arrive with any built-in brand or intellectual property awareness.

Films like Underwater used to be Hollywood's bread and butter, but they're increasingly rare in the modern landscape. Which is unfortunate for storytelling overall.

The Oscar nominations themselves, however, point to an affection for bold narrative in general, even if they proved somewhat predictable in their lack of diversity on both the gender and racial fronts.

The Oscars play an unfortunately large role in defining Hollywood's perception of itself, and the lack of females in the directing category—Greta Gerwig, Céline Sciamma, and Lulu Wang all arguably deserved nods for Little Women, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and The Farewell—speaks to the gender bias that has been endemic in Hollywood for too long.

Diversity and inclusion can only increase the quality of narratives coming out of the studio system, and it's clear we still have a long way to go on that front.

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