Back in 2017, Damien Chazelle had the world at his feet. At just 32 years of age, the filmmaker had become the youngest ever person to win a Best Director Oscar – and due to a now infamous mix-up, he briefly thought his critically-adored musical La La Land had been awarded the coveted Best Picture gong, too. Following his victory, Chazelle was heaped with adulation by critics and hailed as a major new voice in Hollywood, subsequently given the kind of backing that would allow him to make just about anything he wanted.


And so – after first directing the terrific Neil Armstrong biopic First Man and working on the Netflix series The Eddy – he embarked on his passion project: a period piece chronicling various larger-than-life characters during the transition from silent film to talkies in the Golden Age of Hollywood. That idea became Babylon, a three-hour epic starring Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt which eventually arrived in US cinemas in late December.

Given Chazelle's reputation and the star-studded ensemble cast assembled to bring his vision to life, you might think it the kind of film that would fare at least reasonably well at the box office. But in reality, the film has been a major flop – and looks increasingly unlikely to break even against its $80 million budget.

In fact, in its opening weekend in US cinemas, Babylon made around $5 million – less than a third of what had been projected – and despite claims that numerous factors, including the impact of Winter Storm Elliott, had a part to play in those dispiriting figures, it has shown no signs of recovering so far.

The film is finally set to land in UK cinemas this Friday (20th January), and so now is the perfect time to unpack just why it has failed so drastically at the box office across the pond. What went so wrong for Babylon and its writer/director?

More like this

Well, the first thing to note is that despite the impressive pedigree behind it, it's undoubtedly true to say the film always represented something of a gamble from Paramount Pictures. This was essentially Chazelle cashing in on his cachet to make something entirely on his own terms – a sprawling, shocking, chaotic odyssey that doesn't necessarily adhere to audience expectations. And while a three-hour film portraying the excess and debauchery of a key period from Hollywood history might sound like heaven to Chazelle and other committed cinephiles, it's perhaps unreasonable to expect general audiences to share this enthusiasm.

Of course, at a time when another more-than-three-hour movie – Avatar: The Way of Water – is continuing to pull in mega crowds around the world, it might appear silly to point to its length as a crucial factor for the film's failure. But comparing a non-franchise prestige picture to an event blockbuster is not really a worthwhile endeavor, and it does seem likely that many viewers have been put off by the lofty runtime as much as the film's subject matter. (Speaking of Avatar, the very fact that Babylon opened within a week of the sequel to the highest-grossing film of all time almost certainly didn't do it any favours.)

Then there's the lukewarm reception from critics. Sure, Chazelle's other films have had their detractors, but despite some Golden Globe nominations and a stray rave review here and there, the critical reaction to Babylon has been far more mixed than anything he's made before it. And while critics perhaps no longer have the ability to really make or break a film's success, an adult-orientated prestige picture like this one can greatly benefit from a certain critical buzz, something which wasn't forthcoming before or after release. Unlike La La Land, the film has just never really entered the zeitgeist – and will therefore likely be dismissed as missable by the more casual cinemagoing public whose curiosity might otherwise have been piqued.

The simple fact is that these days, the box office is more or less ruled by franchise pictures, and although each year brings its fair share of breakout hits that far outperform their budget – The Menu being one such recent example – spending a lot of money on an ambitious passion project that would have been considered a gamble even in times when prestige films ruled the roost was always a risky decision. That's not necessarily a criticism of the film – which is packed with some electric moments and standout performances – but an honest assessment of the current state of cinemagoing.

Of course, this all leads to one key question, which is what it means for Chazelle's own future directing career. And while it certainly seems unlikely he'll be given as big a budget to play with for his next venture, he can surely take heart from the fact that even the world's most revered directors – including Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese – have had their fair share of flops in their time. Here's hoping he'll have another hit on his hands before too long.

Babylon is showing in UK cinemas from Friday 20th January 2023. Check out more of our Film coverage or visit our TV Guide and Streaming Guide to find out what's on.


Try Radio Times magazine today and get 12 issues for only £1 with delivery to your home subscribe now. For more from the biggest stars in TV, listen to the Radio Times View From My Sofa podcast.