The Success of ‘Knives Out’ Shows How Studios Can Turn Us Into Moviegoers Again

     January 10, 2020

knives-out-chris-evans-rian-johnsonI don’t actively try to sound like a snake-oil salesman when discussing important matters like the state of the box office and our moviegoing habits. But all the current fretting and pearl-clutching over the state of moviegoing, the health of the U.S. box office, and what kind of movie could help get audiences back into theaters and less reliant on streaming services has left me feeling a bit grandiose in my claims about what the cure might be. Right now, the success of Rian Johnson‘s Knives Out, which has grossed over $250 million worldwide at the box office against a reported budget of just $40 million in addition to being a critical smash, might just hold the key to curing some of the biggest ailments facing the movie industry right now.

Solemn conversations on the declining health of the contemporary theatrical experience have been ongoing for some time now. A few key questions lie at the heart of the matter and there are plenty of answers, depending on who you ask. How do studios gets butts into theater seats? Why continue urging folks into said seats when tickets now cost something in the double digits? Are movie theaters, especially the bigger chains, worth giving money to in the first place when it feels like they essentially cater to massive studio releases which are mostly sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots, re-imaginings, or based on some uber-franchisable IP (some of which succeed, like Avengers: Endgame, and some which struggle big time, like Terminator: Dark Fate)? While there is truly nothing new under the sun, it can’t be— and shouldn’t be — too much to ask that moviegoers be enticed by something completely original. Something which they can’t find elsewhere, like a streaming service.

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Image via Lionsgate

As we prepare for what comes next in 2020 and beyond at the movies, we have to think about what it will take to encourage the average moviegoer to spend the time, money, and gas on choosing what’s in a theater over what is streaming on their platform of choice, which can be viewed from the comfort of their own home. Streaming is a more credible threat to movie theaters these days. In The Hollywood Reporter‘s examination of 2019’s overall box office sales, which hit $11.45 billion but signaled a 4% decline from 2018, THR accurately notes through its sources on the piece that streaming services both veteran and nascent will continue to jockey for the attention of moviegoers and could ultimately win. That is no shade to streamers since they offer a level of accessibility to movies to folks unable to make their way to a movie theater for one reason or another.

THR’s report on the health of the box office touches on these ongoing fears, making it clearer than ever that studios need to collectively examine what they are choosing to put on their slates that will be so unique, so entice, so irresistible that you just have to see it on the big screen. Sure, the movies deemed “theme parks” by Martin Scorsese remain consistently attractive, but it’s really original movies, especially those made in the midbudget range (presenting relatively minimal financial risk to studios if it flops but maximum rewards if it succeeds) that could and should be considered the saving grace. The bolt of lightning to revive the corpse that is the state of the modern moviegoing experience.

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Image via Lionsgate

As we wade through how to reform the moviegoing experience, from what studios choose to greenlight or buy to how movies are distributed and marketed, Knives Out is a prime example of how things can go swimmingly for an original story. There is plenty to love about Knives Out when you narrow the focus to the actual film. Johnson’s reputation as a writer who crafts accessible puzzle boxes that are as intellectual as they are entertaining, as well as his directorial eye, put him in special, venerable category of creatives working today.

Knives Out‘s murder mystery premise is just similar enough to a good Agatha Christie plot to feel familiar but benefits from the twists and innovations to the genre thanks to Johnson. As the private dramas of the fictional Thrombey clan unfolds in the wake of the murder of their patriarch, famed novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), Johnson’s subtle subversions, like revealing how Harlan died early in the film, and sly class commentary on, say, well-meaning but ultimately foolish wealthy neoliberals felt like a jolt of life into an otherwise well-trod genre. Bringing in a cast of favorites for all ages, whether it’s Jamie Lee Curtis and Don Johnson for the Boomers, Chris Evans and Toni Collette for the Gen Xers, or Katherine Langford and Jaeden Martell for discerning teens, Knives Out gives you a round-up of talent with at least one person of interest to latch onto. Ultimately, I think we can all agree a Southern-friend Daniel Craig, however, is for all ages. In the end, Johnson’s combination of genre familiarities and refreshments, played by an equally familiar and refreshing cast in a world throughly thought-out and well-drawn made for a damn good time at the theaters.

It wasn’t just Knives Out itself which makes it such a success, but also key elements like the slickness of its Frank Sinatra-scored trailer complete with crackling one-liners and its chosen release date in late November. Knives Out arrived just before Thanksgiving 2019, priming it for what ultimately became a successful theatrical run (as of early January, the run is still going strong). While it had serious competition with Disney’s Frozen II, it offered up a different kind of family-friendly option for early holiday season moviegoers. Lionsgate choosing to get Knives Out in theaters early enough for it to get momentum by the time the Christmas holidays rolled around means there was the possibility of a month’s worth of word-of-mouth buzz, which ostensibly seems to have worked since Knives Out‘s box office results as of early 2020 reveal it’s been nothing but a hit. The Lionsgate release is now the second highest-grossing original release of 2019 (just behind Jordan Peele’s Us) with a domestic total of $132 million. All things considered, especially where box office results are concerned, Johnson’s confirmation of Knives Out sequel getting the green light at Lionsgate should come as no surprise but rather an inevitable conclusion to the first part of this blossoming franchise’s story.

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Image via Lionsgate

The story ideated by Johnson, then molded by himself and his creative team which was then presented to audiences by Lionsgate and immediately embraced is a solid example of how original storytelling can be a win for all involved. And yes, Knives Out wasn’t the only original story brought into theaters in 2019 (consider the financial, critical, and audience-driven success of UsOnce Upon a Time in HollywoodMidsommar, Ford v Ferrari and The Farewell too), so it’s unfair to say Knives Out alone is solely responsible for showing us how original stories can bring people back to theaters in droves and the movie industry back to life.

But what I am saying is that Knives Out is a good case study for figuring out what makes modern moviegoing audiences tick, what satiates their cinematic appetites, what brings them to multiplexes and boutique theaters hither and yon. If studios of all shapes and sizes want to help contribute to a better, more unique, more enriched and enticing moviegoing experience, it would behoove them to consider handling their originals (beginning with greenlighting them or purchasing them) the way Lionsgate has handled Knives Out. If creatives want to make the artistic medium of moviemaking a more enriched and challenging space that proves originality is not dead and we must all kneel at the altar of the reboot/remake/overly-commercialized IP, using Johnson’s Knives Out as a blueprint in whatever way they want could serve them well.

I also have to acknowledge that what I’m arguing here only serves larger theatrical releases rather than the world of independent film, where original storytelling is the rule rather than the exception. As far as I’m concerned, the Knives Out template must be considered by those bigger studios with access to nationwide release strategies and with enough established pull to bring audiences to theaters for a movie that isn’t, say, a populist superhero movie. Knives Out is big enough in certain aspects to hook you (e.g. the cast) but also unfamiliar enough (e.g. the plot) to intrigue you. This toying with the formula of what makes a movie a box office hit is so deeply necessary to consider going forward.

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Image via Lionsgate

It would also be reckless not to acknowledge just how big a boon original stories at the movies could be to our media diets overall. Pick a random assortment of 2019 originals and there is such a broad mix of styles, tones, casting decisions (from age to race to gender to sexuality and so forth), socioeconomic representation, and even distribution that makes it clear placing more value on originals is the way to go. Rather than shaping a particular theme or message to some known IP, original stories offer a blank canvas upon which a person can write and infuse their own world views, aesthetics, themes, timely messages, and beyond into the very fabric of the work. In this way, original stories like Knives Out have the power to challenge audiences, whether overtly or covertly, through single viewings or repeat viewings. Yes, we want to be entertained at the movies but isn’t it also good to want our consciousness raised and our own ideas about what makes this world go round challenged to any degree a movie aims to do so?

Now, if you’ve made it this far and all you’re doing is wishing I’d take a long walk off a short pier, consider this: original storytelling in 2019 gave us Chris Evans in a cream sweater. It gave us a besweatered Chris Evans smiling smugly in a wood-paneled library. It gave us Chris Evans, in the finest knitwear money could buy, eating cookies and tell people to eat shit while they yelled at him. How can you argue against getting more original stories in theaters when possibilities like this are out there, waiting to be put on the big screen?

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