12 COVID-Era Box Office Flops That Deserve Another Chance

12 COVID-Era Box Office Flops That Deserve Another Chance
Screenshot: Onward/Pixar

Though slightly below projections, No Time to Die’s opening weekend box office grosses in the US — coming hot on the heels of Venom: Let There Be Carnage’s positively pre-pandemic $123-million weekend — suggest people are indeed getting more comfortable with heading back to movie theatres (whether that’s a good idea or not probably depends on where you live and how many shots you’ve had). Great news for the studios and theatre chains, yeah — and also for ticket buyers who miss the big screen experience.

The death of movie theatres has been long prophesied, and the exact shape of the moviegoing experience post-COVID (if we ever freaking get there) remains hazy. At this moment, though, it looks very much like it always did, even if increasingly shorter windows between theatrical debut and home streaming/rental are now likely a fact of life. Box office grosses — the primary way to gauge a film’s success for more than a century — may no longer define what’s a hit and what’s a flop, as streamers can now crow about premium rental fees and boosted subscriber numbers.

Slow recovery and new business models aside, the pandemic’s impact on global box office has been profound. And, look, we’ve had bigger things to worry about, but some films that could have been box office contenders never had a shot — these are good movies that we might have seen in theatres if we hadn’t been smartly avoiding huddling in enclosed, crowded spaces. These 12 films received exclusive theatrical releases at some point during the pandemic, without a simultaneous streaming option (though in some cases the window between theatre and on demand was as short as a few weeks).

The Personal History of David Copperfield

I’ll start with my own favourite movie of the COVID era: Armando Iannucci’s take on one of Dickens’ most popular novels. You’ll know Iannucci’s relentlessly dark sense of humour from shows like Veep and The Thick of It, as well as from 2017’s The Death of Stalin; that might not seem like a natural fit with a highbrow literary adaptation, but he’s one of our most astute satirists when it comes to power and hypocrisy, as was Dickens in his own time. The director brings out the ironic humour that’s very much present novel, as well as a sense of joy where previous adaptations have often tended toward reverence. It’s also gorgeous, and with a wonderful cast that’s definitely not what you’d expect.

Released in the UK at the beginning of 2020, itsplanned May US release was pushed back to August — by which time things weren’t really all that much better. It’s not at all clear that a Dickens adaptation was going was going to be a box office titan, but the film didn’t quite make back its $21 million budget at the box office, which is a shame.

Where to stream: Foxtel Go, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, Google Play, Apple Tv

Birds of Prey

Birds of Prey (aka Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn aka Birds of Prey and Harley Quinn) had the misfortune to be released just on the cusp of COVID: awareness of the pandemic was on the rise throughout the month of February 2020, cutting into the film’s already disappointing box office returns. Marketing was a problem, with the studio seemingly unable to decide if this was to be primarily vehicle for Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, or an ensemble team movie (thus the three different titles, depending on where you saw it advertised).

In any event, it’s too bad people missed out: it’s the funniest and zippiest of the entire modern DC movie stable, with stunning action direction from Cathy Yan that anticipates (and often betters) the tone of the more recent Suicide Squad. It didn’t do miserably at the box office, but it didn’t make back its budget, either.

Where to stream: Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, Google Play, Apple Tv

Onward

Onward’s planned release came at almost the worst possible moment: early March of 2020, when the scope of the pandemic was fully clear. Luckily, the Pixar film got some love via a very quick release to Disney+, which positioned it as a draw for new subscribers.

Still, its box office take was the lowest in Pixar’s history — and it may be the last movie to even get the chance for the foreseeable future, given that Soul and Luca skipped theatres entirely in favour of Disney+ premieres. Onward is set in a land of mythic creatures that looks a lot like ours. Magic has been largely extinct for a long time, until two brothers are given a gift from their late father that allows them to bring his back from the dead for a day-long visit — one that doesn’t go nearly as planned. Is it top-tier Pixar? Not really. But just being in that ballpark made it one of 2020’s best animated films.

Where to stream: Disney+

First Cow

This is another one that was probably never going to be a monster hit, but its a movie that (deservedly) made a bunch of “Best of the Year” lists, yet never had much of a chance to play in theatres, given its release in early March of 2020. It’s a period heist movie, in a sense, but a gentle one, in which the arrival of the title’s cow inspires dreams of biscuits and other baked goods only possible with milk. What begins as a pastoral tale, though, begins to shift as the value of the cow’s milk becomes clearer to the characters, and a burgeoning sense of capitalism begins to turn the frontier into something darker.

Where to stream: Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, Google Play, Apple Tv

The Green Knight

Released in July of this year, David Lowery’s The Green Knight is a stunning, not-really-revisionist take on the Medieval romance, leaving intact so many Middle English narrative idiosyncrasies that it feels fresh as a film. It dropped at a time when COVID seemed to be on the wane, but then suddenly wasn’t — complicating box office performance of a movie that wasn’t designed to be a blockbuster but really deserved to be seen on the big screen. All that said, it did quite a bit better than it might have, suggesting that there’s more of a market for weirdness than you’d expect.

Where to stream: Digital rental

Saint Maud

Yes, this is the third film on this list from arty, indie, angular distributor A24 — but only because they’ve had as rough a couple of years as anyone, with an impressive slate of films that nobody’s seen (relatively). After a few delays, this one got about a two weeks in theatres in the United States before going on demand. In the horror film, Morfydd Clark plays the title character, a nurse who converts to Catholicism and gets really, really into it. She determines to save the soul of one of her patients…and it doesn’t go great, tbh.

Where to stream: Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, Google Play

Respect

While suffering to some degree from the kind of by-the-numbers construction that plagues a lot of biopics, this take on the life of Aretha Franklin has something those others don’t have: an all-time great cast lead by Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson. Her performance as Aretha is energetic and vital — if she’s not quite channeling Franklin, she’s absolutely giving her what she’s due. Mary J. Blige (as Dinah Washington) is also a standout. This one came out in August 2021, and it’s been suggested its movie’s older-skewing demographic’s reluctance to head back to theatres had a lot to do with its relatively poor box office performance.

Where to watch: In cinemas now

Relic

Relic had one of the more interesting and experimental releases of the pandemic: in the US, it got a one-week, drive-in only theatrical release in early July of 2020, then a wider theatrical release alongside on-demand availability a week later. The result was just a few million in ticket grosses for a movie that deserved more. In it, a grandmother named Edna goes missing, having displayed the symptoms of dementia for some time. This isn’t the first film to approach the horror of watching a loved one slowly disappear, but it takes a particularly haunting and restrained approach in doing so; it’s a powerful, metaphorical trip through a once-familiar house made into a maze, with an ending that’s simultaneously lovely and heart-wrenching.

Where to stream: Stan

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

This might be a tiny bot premature, as this movie is technically still in theatres, but director David Wain’s adaptation of the 2000 documentary of the same name has been out long enough that it’s clear it won’t end its run as a hit. Which is too bad: like Respect, it hits some of the standard biopic roadblocks, but it’s likewise anchored by a tour deforce lead performance — in this case, from Jessica Chastain, who turns a larger-than-life persona into a real person.

Where to stream: Nowhere just yet.

Bloodshot

This one was never going to win awards on the festival circuit, but as a comic book adaption, it’s big, dumb, and fun, riffing on a whole lot of other science fiction movies, particularly Universal Soldier, with the always watchable Vin Diesel running around as a cybernetically enhanced soldier who breaks free of his programming to…oh, who cares. It’s entertaining and none of us came here for the plot. It was in theatres for just a couple of weeks last March, and didn’t earn back its budget. (Though apparently it did well enough, given the circumstances, to generate plans for a sequel.)

Where to stream: Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, Google Play, Apple Tv

News of the World

In much the same way Bloodshot works as a vehicle for everything we like about Vin Diesel, News of the World is pure, distilled Tom Hanks at his most comforting and paternal. Here, Hanks plays a literal newsreader: a man travelling from town to town in the Texas of 1870 to tell the largely illiterate populace about things going on in the broader world. (Most of film’s old-west wanderers have been outlaws and gunfighters, and so it’s a welcome change to focus on a character who’s not naive, but not particularly interested in violence, either.) He comes across a young girl, played by Helena Zengel, who only speaks Kiowa and has escaped from the authorities after the Indigenous tribe she’d been raised by were killed. He takes her along with him, and the film becomes a somewhat gentle road movie with a few pointed ideas about the ways in which news has and hadn’t changed.

Where to stream: Netflix

Vast of Night

Vast of Night did well for itself on the pre-COVID festival circuit, but its late-May 2020 theatrical release was never going to be a winning slot, even for a movie that wasn’t designed to be a blockbuster. Given a fair shake, though, it could have easily become a word-of-mouth success. Set in 1950s New Mexico, it’s the story of a disc jockey and a switchboard operator who look into strange occurrences involving UFOs on one night in their sleepy town. The synopsis doesn’t sound like much more than a mediocre X-Files episode, but the finished product represents an impossibly confident, assured debut from director Andrew Patterson, with visual flair and sound design that belie its ultra-low budget, and lead performances from Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz that sell every second of the weirdness.

Where to stream: Amazon Prime Video

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