Cate Blanchett and The Shawshank Redemption

I assuming you know that the famed Stephen King novella on which the Tim Robbins/Morgan Freeman picture was based was originally entitled Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, the poster of that movie goddess used in that version by the wannabe escapee to cover the hole he was making in his prison cell wall.

I’m making a connection to Cate Blanchett because The Shawshank Redemption (1994) was a critical success, seven Oscar nominations including Best Picture, but so conspicuously failed at the box office that it was scarcely shown abroad and only won an audience, and made more than its money back, on DVD and latterly became the poster boy for flops that somehow make a financial comeback.

Tar had all the critical support – with the exception of me, of course – that a movie could wish for and will at least pick up an Oscar nomination for Blanchett. But now that DVD is dead in the water, there’s virtually no chance of it making enough thereafter to cover the losses which are currently in the region of $30 million.

Movies used to have what was known as a “long tail,” meaning that initial box office was only one part of the equation. And a small part at that if the movie was a blockbuster. Reissue and sales to DVD, video rental, television, syndication, and early streaming services on a global scale sometimes amounted to as much as 90% of its overall earnings, especially bearing in mind that VHS/DVD in particular had various levels of revenue.

A big title might first be sold to video rental companies forking out $59.99 for the privilege and the bigger the title the more copies were purchased, so a blockbuster might easily have reaped $20-$30 million on that go-round. Then when it was released to the public, a big film would cost big money – $29.99 to $39.99 – and once that tier had done its job, the movie would be progressively sold in lower price brackets then repackaged again to supermarkets and bargain bins. More recently, the Director’s Cut, remastering and monetising anniversaries have added to that food chain.

Television went through several tiers as well. Studios never actually sold any movie to the small screen. They leased them. Usually for a period of time, say three years, and a limited number of screenings, often just two. And once that deal was done, they leased them again, and again and again. Until streaming killed off the majority of this market, movies made in the 1960s could have been leased a dozen times to television networks and even more in syndication. Cable would pay good money for a slice of that action.  

Television famously put The Alamo (1960) and Cleopatra (1963) into the black and then the combination of TV, VHS/DVD, cable etc, made them substantial profits. And studios could always wrap them up as a library and sell them off to movie-hungry stations like TCM. Imax and 3D provided reissue opportunities at the start of this century, but these days a return to a movie theater would be a seriously limited proposition and open only to major successes like The Godfather (1972).

But, in terms of redemption-sized income, virtually all those avenues have disappeared. And critics don’t have the power to turn on the money taps. I’m sure Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman…(1975) which came out of nowhere, though probably the result of a social media coup, to top the once-in-a-decade Sight & Sound Critics Poll, will bring in extra bucks, no matter that it will scarcely register on streaming and DVD sales will be limited to the arthouse fraternity.

Alfred Hitchcock is often touted as the Comeback King when Vertigo (1958) climbed to the top of the Sight & Sound Poll after initially being largely discounted in that particular race. But in the first place, Hitchcock had already been a box office giant. A very small number of his pictures lost money on initial cinema release and his “critical redemption” if you like was anything but. He achieved Sight & Sound dominance because five of his greatest pictures had been kept from public view for over two decades. When they appeared, in one of the great reissue stories, the public flocked to see them on the big screen, and on subsequent DVD release so it was from there that a new wave of critics found the films contained far more art than previously ascertained.

So, back to Tar – and other box office duds like Corsage ($2.7 million worldwide) and Empire of Light ($3.2 million). Where does it go from here?

One option is tax write-off. The companies that invested in it in the first place might have done so to avoid handing over profits to the taxman. Conversely, they can use losses to offset a future tax demand.

But that’s hardly going to stimulate the movie-making market.

Studios used to test-market films but now production companies like these shovel their pictures into an endless maw of film festivals where their movies receive the kind of reception that fills them with glee but turns out to be the opposite of what the public – even the arthouse public – actually wants.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

6 thoughts on “Cate Blanchett and The Shawshank Redemption”

  1. I remember those days well where a film’s box office was just the starting point of its financial journey. I know studios have always loved when their movies have been critically claimed, but more than ever it is all about turning a healthy profit. And, that is getting harder and harder to do. Great, timely post.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think only Weinstein made films that depended on Oscar acclaim to turn a buck. Thanks, Bruce. For most other studios it was icing on the cake and there is virtually no film that has gone into the black after a disastrous opening as a result of winning an Oscar. Statistically, the best results come from the nominations.

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  2. Tar’s got four, possible six weeks of daily news stories and free publicity to come with a worldwide release going down and massive recognition factor on streaming. While I agree with your comments on the changing industry, it’s not a dud like Corsage or Empire of Light. IMHO.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Those box office hikes you used to get with Oscar noms don’t exist any more as far as I can see. I’ll be interested to see if the box office gets a fillip. And you’re right it’s not in the Corsage or Empire class. Both Tar and empire have only been released in the UK outisde of America so far, the former with $1.4m in the UK, the latter with $3.4m, but Tar did better in the US, $6m to $1.17m. Tar has got virtually the world to go so Oscar might tip the balance. Let’s see.

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      1. Yeah, I think the bounce from awards is pretty much dead. Even from the Oscars, which are pretty much the gold standard for industry self-promotion (hell, that’s what they were originally meant for). Who saw CODA? And movies like Nomadland and Moonlight were profitable only because they had such low budgets. They weren’t blockbuster hits.

        It’s interesting that the same thing has happened with literary awards, I’ve found. People just don’t care anymore. And they’re right not to care. The juries are a joke, made of people who in most cases haven’t even seen the works they’re supposed to be judging.

        Where the industry is going to make its money moving forward is the vital question. Looks like most of them are betting all their money on being able to sell subscriptions to streaming services. I’ll continue to watch DVDs but I realize it’s almost like stamp collecting now.

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      2. Oscars invented self-promotion and back-slapping. You wonder how the likes of Shakeseare and Dickens survived without getting an award every now and then to justify their faith in themselves. You are right, quite a few low-budget films deliberately market themsleves as Oscar candy. I’m not sure where this is all going but I’ve still got a couple of thousand DVDs to rewatch and at the rate of one a day I won’t have to worry about modern cinema output for another five years or so.

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