‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’: Will Sony’s Bet on Quentin Tarantino Pay Off?

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” will try to match director’s past box office performance against tough blockbuster competition

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Sony Pictures

While “The Lion King” is expected to stay No. 1 at the box office after its July record $191.5 million opening, the industry’s attention will instead be focused on Sony’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” a film seen by some analysts as a canary in the coal mine to see if original, stand-alone films driven by A-list stars and filmmakers can still thrive in the age of franchises.

In a little bit of life imitating art, Tarantino’s tale about a cowboy star being left behind in Hollywood enters theaters as the sort of film that once was considered a surefire moneymaker but is now becoming increasingly rare. Tarantino, who has a hardcore cinephile following, is the main selling point of this movie along with his loaded cast led by Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie. Only a few stars these days like Dwayne Johnson get their films promoted in such a manner, with most big-budget films usually marketed on name-recognized characters or an interesting, easily explainable premise.

But based on reviews from the “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” premiere at Cannes, Sony’s marketing approach on star appeal may be at least in part out of necessity. While the movie has a basic synopsis, critics like TheWrap’s Steve Pond have said that there are twists that Tarantino asked reviewers to not spoil, while the film’s general approach to its narrative has a far more relaxed pace than other Tarantino films like “Kill Bill.”

In recent years, there have been some big-budget, complex films like “Blade Runner 2049” that have earned critical acclaim but did not perform beyond a hardcore moviegoer crowd because the plot wasn’t conveyed in a compelling way by marketing. By taking a story-lite approach to promoting “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Sony is definitely taking a gamble, especially considering what they’ve invested in bringing Tarantino’s project under their wing.

Following the downfall of Harvey Weinstein, who gave Tarantino his start and produced and distributed all his films, a bidding war began for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” with Sony winning after promising Tarantino full control over the film’s final cut. Sony has also given this film a $90 million budget, standing as the second-highest budget ever given to a Tarantino film behind the reported $100 million budget for “Django Unchained.”

So will the risk pay off? Currently, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is projected for a $35-40 million opening, with Sony projecting a $30 million start. A $40 million opening would put it in the range of Tarantino’s last summer release, “Inglourious Basterds,” which opened to $38 million in August 2009. While other films with similar budgets have struggled to break even when opening at that figure, Tarantino has a history of legging out very well.

“Basterds,” for example, took advantage of a light September slate and grossed $120.5 million domestic and $321 million worldwide. “Django,” which opened to $30 million in Christmas 2012, did even better as it rode off its Best Picture nomination to a $162 million domestic and $425 million total.

But “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” won’t have the luxury of a lighter slate. While “Lion King” and the forthcoming “Hobbs & Shaw” won’t peel off the core demographic of adult moviegoers looking for more mature films, they will be competition for more general adult audiences who might have seen “Django” or “Basterds” but also regularly buy tickets to blockbusters.

And the last time Tarantino went head-to-head with a huge blockbuster it didn’t go so well. His last film, 2015’s “The Hateful Eight,” went up against the intensely anticipated “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and only grossed $155 million worldwide. Granted, that film had a smaller $44 million budget and “Force Awakens” was an event film only rivaled by “Avengers” movies, but it still shows that Tarantino films’ ability to leg out with strong word of mouth will be tested in the movie landscape where it isn’t the only anticipated film in theaters.

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” follows Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), fading cowboy TV star and neighbor of Sharon Tate (Robbie), as he tries to find the next steps in his declining career. Meanwhile, his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Pitt), crosses paths with Charles Manson’s infamous cult. The film also stars Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Dakota Fanning, Kurt Russell, Margaret Qualley, Bruce Dern, Austin Butler and Al Pacino. The film currently has a 93% score on Rotten Tomatoes.