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Will Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ Live Up to the Box Office Hype?

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s star-studded ode to the dying days of old Hollywood, has been riding a wave of anticipation since its lauded premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

The adults-only drama, which hits theaters Friday, is on track to take in between $28 million to $30 million in its opening weekend, according to Variety, with some box office experts estimating it could hit as high as $50 million.

But in a summer where a number of movies based on original concepts—as opposed to certain blockbuster sequels, remakes, and superhero franchises—haven’t fared well at the box office, can Tarantino’s latest deliver?

A Star-Studded Cast

Its star wattage alone could make the film a box office draw. With an A-list cast led by Leonardo DiCaprio as a fading television star and Brad Pitt as his stunt double, the film marks DiCaprio’s first film since he won an Academy Award for his role in 2015’s The Revenant. As The Hollywood Reporter recently pointed out, DiCaprio is one of the only global superstars, “whose consistent bankability and acclaim set him apart from his peers.” DiCaprio's last 10 films combined have earned nearly $3.3 billion at the global box office, per The Hollywood Reporter.

Set in 1969 Hollywood, Tarantino’s latest stars Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate, the actress who, along with four others, was gruesomely murdered by Charles Manson’s “Family” that year. Al Pacino, Dakota Fanning, Kurt Russell, Lena Dunham, and the late Luke Perry round out the ensemble cast.

“It’s a dream cast for a film fan and particularly for a Quentin Tarantino film fan,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst at Comscore. “I think the prospects are really strong for this movie.”

Based on the social media buzz surrounding the film and 91% Rotten Tomatoes score (at the time of publication), it seems likely to meet box office expectations, but it’s far from a sure bet—especially considering the film’s ghoulish subject matter. Sure, it’s a Quentin Tarantino film, but it’s also a period piece that draws inspiration from a horrific crime.

Dark Subject Matter

“A lot will depend on how audiences respond to the subject matter,” said Variety box office reporter Rebecca Rubin. “Critics seemed to love it at Cannes, but history shows that doesn’t always translate into big ticket sales.”

There could also be pushback against the way Tarantino frames the film via the Manson murders, but barely gives Robbie much to say as Tate. Though the movie runs two hours and 40 minutes, Robbie’s Tate reportedly doesn’t have many lines, though Tarantino recently told Deadline one of her scenes has been extended.

It’s also Tarantino’s first post-Harvey Weinstein-scandal film, as well as the first since it was revealed that the director talked Uma Thurman into shooting an automobile scene, which resulted in a crash and resulting injuries on the set of Kill Bill.

Original Films Have Disappointed at the Box Office Lately

Then there’s the fact that audiences seem to have cooled on original films at the moment. Jordan Peele’s Us is the only original film among the top 10 grossing features of 2019. All the other box office hits this year were part of movie franchises (hello Avengers: Endgame).

“It’s been a weird summer with some of the original content—non-franchise or sequel—films like Long Shot, Late Night, and Booksmart had a really hard time finding their audience. But this film looks unique and fresh and different,” said Dergarabedian.

Tarantino’s last film, The Hateful Eight, disappointed at the box office taking in a modest $54 million domestically. The better comparison to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the director’s Inglourious Basterds, another period piece released in the summer. That film, which hit theaters in August 2009, raked in more than $38 million on its opening weekend (not adjusted for inflation) and went on to gross over $120 million domestically and an additional $200 million overseas.

The director’s biggest box office hit to date is the Academy Award-winning Django Unchained, which earned $162 million in North America and $262 million overseas.

Once Upon a Time’s two-and-a-half-plus hours running time may deter some curious moviegoers, but Tarantino’s fans alone could make his long-awaited latest film a hit.

Tarantino’s a Brand Name

“In terms of brand name recognition, I’d put him up there with Spielberg and Hitchcock,” said Dergarabedian. “That’s a very rare position to be in. It’s not like there’s a new Tarantino film every six months. There’s a lot of anticipation—and the trailers have been excellent.”

Once also marks Tarantino’s first time working with a major studio, Sony Pictures, which is hoping to recoup the whopping $90 million it laid out to cover production costs. That doesn’t even include global marketing costs. Sony is betting big on the Tarantino brand.

“I think audiences have been especially wary of quality, so if they trust a filmmaker, they are more likely to buy a movie ticket,” said Variety's Rubin, who pointed to the strong opening weekend for Us, as an example.

 “Nobody really knew what Us was about but after Get Out, people were all in on Jordan Peele, so his name alone drew out a huge opening weekend. Universal's marketing campaign emphasized Peele's involvement, and Sony is similarly highlighting Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as ‘Tarantino's ninth feature.’”

The Perfect Sweet Spot?

Sony wisely chose a weekend where there are no other films opening nationwide. It will be the second weekend that The Lion King is in theaters, but that PG-rated Disney live-action remake isn’t direct competition for Tarantino’s R-rated film.

If Once manages to bring in around $30 million in its opening weekend, “that could be the perfect sweet spot for a movie like this,” said Deragabadian.

Tarantino films don’t always have big opening weekend numbers. Instead, they tend to build momentum over time as word-of-mouth spreads.

“If Once Upon a Time in Hollywood turns out to be just for Tarantino fans, then you may see a drop-off at the box office,” said Deragabadian. “But if it catches some Oscar buzz and is in the 80s or 90s on Rotten Tomatoes and becomes a cultural phenomenon, it could have a nice long run at the box office.” 

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