Why Hasn’t ‘Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’ Found Its Box-Office Footing?

The Weinstein Company’s awards hopeful has struggled since opening just a week before the South African statesman’s death

The Nelson Mandela biopic “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” has failed to find a broad audience or generate the awards traction that many observers foresaw prior to its release in early December.

The Weinstein Company release has taken in just over $7.7 million since Nov. 29 and is about to be crowded out of the marketplace by awards hopefuls and new releases. TWC cut its screen count back from 1,010 to 363 this past weekend and it still averaged a very soft $730 million per screen.

So how is it that a film about a hugely popular global icon with strong cast, a prestige pedigree — President Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton, Sen. John McCain and Gen. Colin Powell hosted screenings — and the Weinstein marketing machine behind it, has failed to generate stronger business?

“It’s frustrating for us, because it’s a great movie and just about everybody who’s seen it feels that way,” said Erik Lomis, the distribution chief at TWC, which acquired domestic and some foreign rights to the film from producer Anant Singh in February. “It got a ‘A+’ CinemaScore and our exits polls have been really strong.”

Also read: ‘Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’ Review: Idris Elba Finds Icon’s Humanity in This Moving, Stolid Biopic

“Long Walk to Freedom” is directed by Justin Chadwick and stars Idris Elba as the South African statesman and Naomie Harris as his wife, Winnie. It’s a chronicle of Mandela’s life from his childhood in a rural village through his 27-year imprisonment to his inauguration as his country’s first democratically elected president.

The death of Mandela on Dec. 5 – less than a week after its limited release in U.S. theaters – could actually have hurt it, rather than providing a boost, at the box office. The wall-to-wall news coverage of Mandela’s death and funeral may have provided many potential moviegoers with a surfeit of information about him, or convinced them that they knew enough about his life – at least for now.

“It could have gone the other way, but I do think that became a factor,” said BoxOffice.com editor-in-chief Phil Contrino. “To a degree, the marketing made it seem seem a very realistic and faithful telling of his story, and it almost had a documentary feel.

“It was also hurt by the crowded marketplace. Other awards contenders like ‘American Hustle’ and ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ almost by nature conveyed more energy than a historical drama, and that put it in a tough spot,” he said.

Also read: ‘Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’ Trailer Touts Message of a Great Man (Video)

“Long Walk” drew rave notices from the N.Y.  Times and L.A. Times, but overall it’s at 56 percent positive on review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes. Critic Laurence Phelan may have touched on part of the problem in his take on the film for London’s Independent:

“If nothing else, you come out of the film with a sense of the man’s remarkable rectitude, forbearance and political intelligence,” he wrote. “But then you probably already had it on the way in.”

In other words, Mandela’s incredible life and achievements – which included 27 years in prison for his politics – are so well known that the bar for providing fresh insights became extremely high.

Mandela’s death by chance occurred just as the movie was premiering in London, and his daughters Zindzi and Zenani were told their father had passed five minutes into the film.

Also read: Harvey Weinstein Opens Up About ‘Mandela’ Plans in Wake of Leader’s Loss (Exclusive)

In an interview with TheWrap, Harvey Weinstein said he resisted suggestions to take the movie wider, sooner, because of the news — and refused to consider tying considerations about the fate of the movie with Mandela’s death.

“There are no opportunities. I’m just going to respect the will of the family through Zindzi Mandela,” he said two days after Mandela’s death.

“Long Walk to Freedom” had earlier opened on four theaters to an OK average of $21,000 per-screen just after Thanksgiving. It never found its footing after that, however, and declined until the weekend after Christmas, when TWC expanded it into 975 theaters. It averaged a soft $2,298 per theater in a crowded holiday marketplace, and half that the following week when TWC upped the count to 1,010.

On the awards front, “Long Walk” captured Best Original Song at the Golden Globes for U2’s “Ordinary Love” and TWC is still harboring hopes that it will sneak into the Oscar Best Picture race when the nominations are announced Thursday. That could change its box-office dynamic — and would certainly lift already high expectations for the film’s run on home video — but most pundits see that as a long shot, and Elba looks to be the victim of a ridiculously competitive Best Actor category.
Another film about Mandela failed to find an audience three months before “Long Walk” hit theaters. Image Entertainment’s “Winnie Mandela,” starring Jennifer Hudson and Terrence Howard, came and went very quickly after a dismal limited opening in early September.

There haven’t been many attempts to bring Mandela’s life to the big screen over the years. That may in part be due to the challenges any filmmaker would face in putting his 27 years spent in prison in context.

Morgan Freeman won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Mandela in 2009’s “Invictus,” which chronicled the new president’s attempt to unite South Africa during the 1995 Rugby World Cup. That one did pretty well at the box office, taking in $122 million worldwide.

“Goodbye Bafana,” a 2007 film that starred Dennis Haysbert as Mandela, did not. It focused on his relationship with a racist warrant officer played by Joseph Fiennes, and managed just $6 million in grosses.