For a man who just directed a $155-million flop, Denis Villeneuve was remarkably calm.
On the phone from Los Angeles last week, the Quebec director was philosophical about the highs and lows of his latest film, Blade Runner 2049.
Villeneuve has been hailed as an artistic genius in response to his nearly three-hour epic, which expands on the iconic vision of Ridley Scott’s 1982 original, a dystopian reverie starring Harrison Ford as a state-sanctioned hunter of android “replicants.”
Blade Runner 2049 — which features Ryan Gosling, Ford, Ana de Armas, Robin Wright and Sylvia Hoeks — is all but guaranteed a spot near the top of any selfrespecting film critic’s year-end Top 10, but has fallen well short of expectations at the box office.
It’s on course to pull in about $250 million. After marketing and other expenses, that will leave producers Alcon with a debt in the neighbourhood of $80 million, according to the Hollywood Reporter — light-years away from the expected earnings for what was touted as one of the year’s most anticipated movies. (Sony will make back its $110-million investment, in accordance with the deal it negotiated to be reimbursed first in exchange for a lower percentage of any profits.)
So, which is it? A masterpiece or a flop?
Are the two mutually exclusive? Or, in an era in which blockbuster is equated with brainless bombast, are they ultimately synonymous? Are artistically ambitious works bound to fail? And if so, where does that leave an uncompromisingly creative director of Villeneuve’s calibre?
Before we start throwing around the F-word, let us weigh all factors in this complex equation. While money is generally the bottom line in Hollywood, Villeneuve appears once again to be breaking the mould, somehow remaining in everyone’s good books as his market value continues to grow.
“My job is to make movies, not sell movies,” the filmmaker said, adding “Sony is very happy.
“The film is a success outside the U.S., especially in Europe. Around the world, results have been very strong. The campaign in the U.S. was done differently.”
Perhaps he is referring to the wham-bam trailers, which made Blade Runner 2049 out to be an action-packed roller-coaster ride — a far cry from the existential dreamscape Villeneuve created, in bold defiance of big-budget conventions.
“The film was made intentionally with an art-house quality,” he explained. “It was conceived to be part of a continuum with the original. It’s kind of an anti-blockbuster. So in that sense, perhaps I went looking for (the disappointing box office). But then there’s the marketing. The studios underestimated how well people knew the first film. There were many other factors.”
Although it has become a cult classic, the original Blade Runner also initially bombed at the box office, making for another way in which Villeneuve has stayed true to the original. And with Oscar nominations coming up in the new year, redemption may yet be forthcoming.
But why and how all that cinematic expertise, marquee talent and hefty promotional allowance did not translate into ticket sales remains a question Villeneuve and his producers are at a loss to answer.
“It’s a mystery,” he said. “All the indexes and marketing tools they were using predicted that it would be a success. The film was acclaimed by critics. So everyone expected the first weekend’s results to be impressive, and they were shocked. They still don’t understand.”
It’s all relative, of course. Having just made a film that will bring in more than $250 million, Villeneuve is enjoying “the biggest box office of my life.”
What’s more, it’s not just the critics who are raving. Blade Runner 2049 has garnered positive reviews from those who have ventured out to see it, earning an A- from audience polling service CinemaScore.
“I’ve never had scores like this,” Villeneuve said. “It’s very curious (that it hasn’t translated into ticket sales).”
So what’s a guy to do? Well, if you’re Denis Villeneuve, you keep doing what you’re doing. The director has built his fast-rising career on his identity as an unflinching auteur, imbuing every project he approaches — from his 2010 Oscarnominated breakthrough Incendies to the thrillers Prisoners and Sicario and the sci-fi mystery Arrival — with his inimitable ability to slow down time, build tension and reveal the profound emotional truths of any dramatic situation.
The film is a success outside the U.S., especially in Europe. Around the world, results have been very strong. The campaign in the U.S. was done differently
“The moment filmmakers start trying to control the (financial) outcomes of their films, it’s the end of cinema,” he said. “You can’t change your way of working. I tried to make the best film possible. I don’t know anything about promotion or marketing. I don’t know what I could have done differently.”
He may not have to change anything at all. Alcon, the independent production company that worked with Villeneuve on Prisoners and was set to make its definitive leap into blockbuster territory with Blade Runner 2049, is standing by the director.
“They’ve been complete gentlemen,” Villeneuve said. “They’ve repeated how proud they are of the film. Artistically, for them, it’s a success. They’re very disappointed with the American box office, and they might have changed their approach strategically if they had a crystal ball. But they can’t wait to work with me again. I’m sincerely sad about them losing money on their investment, but they’ll get through this and they’ll keep making films.”
As will Villeneuve. The filmmaker’s dance card is overflowing. Already signed on to direct the reboot of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic Dune, this week he announced he was withdrawing his name from the short list to direct the next James Bond film, Bond 25. He had met with actor Daniel Craig and series producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, and was reportedly Craig ’s preference to lead the project, but it all came down to timing.
Villeneuve has also been in talks with Sony to direct its long-awaited Cleopatra remake. In other words, far from hindering his career, Blade Runner 2049 has propelled Villeneuve to the next level of his craft.
“The film was extremely well received by the cinematic community,” he said. “People really, really like the film. The truth is that I’ve had more offers than ever. This proved I’m able to work in that range.
“But the truth, between me and you, is I can’t permit myself to make three films like this. Films are expensive. Since it’s my first time, it’s allowed, because the film was very well received; but I can’t do that every time.” Nor would he want to. “I can’t live with this pressure,” he admitted. “I can’t predict whether a movie will be a success at the box office or not. People think it’s a science, but it’s art. You never know what will connect with people. I was just talking with Emma Thomas, the producer of (Christopher Nolan’s) Dunkirk. They thought it would tank, but it was a success. These things are tough to call.
“I will keep making films the best way I can. The rest is up to the cinema gods.”