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.

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