When Amy Pascal allowed “Steve Jobs” to leave Sony for Universal, the studio chief fretted that she had let a modern day “Citizen Kane” slip through her fingers.
The strikingly literate biopic about the Apple co-founder was brilliant she noted, but after Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale passed on the title role, it lacked a major star, limiting its commercial prospects. In the end, Pascal, whose job was already threatened by a string of flops like “After Earth” and “White House Down,” couldn’t justify the risk.
Fast-forward nearly a year. Pascal is out of a job, “Steve Jobs” has debuted to rapturous reviews, and the film is a strong Oscar contender. It’s every bit as good as Pascal thought it would be, but the then Sony chief’s wariness also appears to have been entirely justified.
“Steve Jobs” was too brainy, too cold, and too expensive to make it a success. Moreover, Michael Fassbender, the electrifying Irish actor who replaced Bale as Jobs, lacks the drawing power to open the picture.
After racking up the year’s best per-screen average in its opening weekend and doing strong business in limited expansion, “Steve Jobs” hit a stumbling block in its national release. It debuted to a measly $7.3 million, only a little more than the $6.7 million that “Jobs,” a critically derided film about the iPhone father with Ashton Kutcher, made in its initial weekend. Going into the weekend, some tracking suggested that the picture would do as much as $19 million.
So what went wrong?
Universal believes that the picture can recover. Studio executives note that it is popular in major urban markets like San Francisco and New York, and argue that the film’s A minus CinemaScore means word-of-mouth will be strong. If it can stay in theaters until Golden Globe and Oscar nominations are announced, they believe it can rebound.
“We are going to continue to support the film in the markets where it is showing strength and we’re going to continue to do it aggressively and proactively,” said Nick Carpou, Universal’s domestic distribution chief. “The critics are there for it and the buzz in these markets is strong.”
It’s still hard to see how the film turns a profit. The picture cost $30 million to make and at least as much to market. That means that “Steve Jobs” needs to do at least $120 million in order to break even. Given that the film is dialogue-driven and lacks a major star, its foreign prospects seem bleak. It’s almost entirely a domestic play, and so far it’s only made about $10 million.
“There was an over-inflated sense of how well this film could do,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “Its only chance now is to gain awards traction.”
Looking back, it’s difficult to see how “Steve Jobs” could overcome the commercial headwinds it faced. Because of its Silicon Valley subject matter and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s involvement, the film has been compared to the Facebook drama “The Social Network.” That film managed to turn critical raves for Sorkin’s cutting dialogue into big box office and a $22.4 million opening. But the comparisons are faulty. “The Social Network” benefited from arriving just as Facebook was becoming ubiquitous. In 2010, it opened as everyone was discovering the thrill of over-sharing vacation pictures and political screeds. Even as it hit the zeitgeist, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg remained largely unknown to the general public. The story of the social media platform’s litigious origins had the shock of new.
In contrast, Jobs, his genius for design and demanding personality, have all been thoroughly picked over. There’s the Walter Isaacson biography that formed the basis for the Sorkin picture, the Kutcher biopic, and endless profiles and think pieces. Steve Jobs is many things, but he is not an unknown commodity.
Few would fault Fassbender’s performance, but his casting may have been disastrous from a commercial standpoint. An Oscar nominee with a series of compelling turns in the likes of “Shame” and “12 Years a Slave,” Fassbender has yet to establish himself as a bankable actor. In fact, a study by Piedmont Media Research found that audiences’ interest in seeing “Steve Jobs” dipped after they found out Fassbender was headlining the drama. Having a DiCaprio or a Robert Downey Jr. in the title role may have broadened “Steve Jobs’” appeal.
Further compounding issues, “Steve Jobs” debuted at a time of year when the competition is fierce for adult audiences. Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies,” Nancy Meyer’s “The Intern,” and the Johnny Depp mob movie “Black Mass” are all appealing to older crowds, and there is a wealth of specialty films in limited release like “Room” that are attracting the art-house set.
“It’s the marketplace,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak. “It’s a high class problem to have, but ‘Steve Jobs’ opened when there are almost too many choices for sophisticated audiences.”
And then there’s the movie itself. Jobs was an emotionally abusive perfectionist. That kind of drive inspires great drama, but is a difficult sell. Universal’s marketing team wisely tried to emphasize the Apple founder’s fraught relationship with his daughter Lisa as a way of humanizing him in trailers and promotional materials. However, that was problematic. Jobs denied paternity. That made him a fascinating and flawed protagonist, but one that’s hard to root for. Moviegoers, after all, tend to like their parents to be devoted and loving, not responsibility-shirking and self-absorbed.
Universal, in the midst of a record-shattering year thanks to hits like “Jurassic World” and “Minions,” can afford to lose money on “Steve Jobs.” For Sony, it’s another story. The studio is fifth in market share and coming off one of the worst summers in its history. Moreover, it’s still reeling from a hack that exposed Pascal and her team’s “Steve Jobs” deliberations to the world, embarrassing the company and straining its relationships with top talent.
Pascal can be faulted for much of what went wrong. She is responsible for crafting a slate that included duds like “Aloha” and “Pixels.” She spent too much money and expended too little imagination trying to reboot “Spider-Man.” And she allowed Seth Rogen to kill off Kim Jong-un in “The Interview,” prompting the North Korean dictator to launch a cyber attack that cost Sony millions.
But in the case of “Steve Jobs,” Pascal was right. It is a brilliant film and a bad bet. A project it hurts not to greenlight and a picture that it pays to put in turnaround. “Steve Jobs” is a frustrating reminder that in today’s Hollywood, quality doesn’t guarantee success.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the year that “The Social Network” was released.
Got the drop on Variety . . .