Why ‘Babylon’ Bombed at the Box Office – and Paramount May Be OK With It

Though his raunchy R-rated dramedy put off audiences, Damien Chazelle may be part of the studio’s larger plans

While “Avatar: The Way of Water” is getting most of the box office attention with its meteoric holiday run in theaters, it’s time to address the defecating elephant in the room: Paramount’s box office bust “Babylon.”

After spending all of 2022 putting out multiple box office hits from different genres and budget levels — including the $1.48 billion “Top Gun: Maverick” — Paramount took a roll of the dice on Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle’s $78 million dramedy set in 1920s Hollywood. As general audiences rushed to “Avatar 2” and families have trickled in to “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” “Babylon” has accrued an anemic $11 million domestic box office total after two weekends in theaters.

Sporting a three-hour runtime, “Babylon” follows party girl Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) and Mexican immigrant Manuel “Manny” Torres through their rise to silent film starlet and movie studio executive and their subsequent fall as the advent of sound in movies causes the industry to leave them behind. The film also follows sideplots involving Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), another silent film star who can’t make the jump to the “talkies” and Black jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer, whose own rise to stardom is interrupted when he’s forced to wear blackface makeup at the demand of studio execs.

The film, described by Chazelle as “a hate letter to Hollywood, but a love letter to cinema,” has earned multiple Golden Globe and Critics Choice Awards nominations and is still a contender for a Best Picture nomination, but critics and audiences have been polarized by the film’s raunchy depiction of Hollywood’s early years. Along with the aforementioned elephant dung, “Babylon” also features golden showers, Margot Robbie projectile vomiting and getting bitten by a snake, and plenty of cocaine-fueled antics.

While its wild imagery and its devotion to chronicling an early, turbulent chapter in cinema history may very well make it a future cult film among cinephiles and film school students, it has clearly alienated many others with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 55% critics and 49% audience. It also got a C+ from opening night moviegoers on CinemaScore, standing as the only holiday wide release on the audience poll to fail to earn an A.

Perhaps that’s a sign that “Babylon” was always going to fail to gain the mainstream audience needed to turn a profit on its budget level no matter what, but it’s likely that the marketing didn’t help either. The film’s trailers, along with most of the television and digital marketing, focused primarily on footage of Robbie and Pitt dancing and drinking in the film’s wild parties and film shoots, hyping the film as an insane spectacle that must be seen on the big screen.

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Jeremy Fuster

Box Office Reporter • jeremy.fuster@thewrap.com • Twitter: @jeremyfuster