‘The Northman’ bombs at the box office. Can Robert Eggers’ film recover?

Hollywood is often blamed for no longer churning out large-scale original epics like “The Northman,” director Robert Eggers’ bloody Viking tale about a warrior’s quest to avenge his father’s death.

Yet Focus Features, Universal’s indie label, took a gamble, not only backing “The Northman,” but releasing the film in theaters nationwide. Driven by positive reviews, the film grossed $12 million from 3,865 North American theaters over the weekend, enough to secure No. 4 on the domestic box office charts. Not bad for an auteur film, huh?

Except for the pesky fact that “The Northman” was 10 times more expensive to produce than your average indie. The actual cost of the film is up for debate; Eggers loudly touts his $90 million production budget in the press, much to the chagrin of its financial investors. They dispute Eggers’ calculations, privately saying the final figure was closer to $70 million after accounting for tax incentives.

At this point, call it a wash. That’s still a huge sum to spend on a highly R-rated medieval Icelandic drama, which isn’t necessarily intended to appeal to mainstream audiences. To complicate finances, “The Northman” was heavily advertised via TV spots, as well as billboards pasted in populated areas like Times Square (some of which weren’t exactly mount as expected). With a huge price tag and lackluster ticket sales, “The Northman” already looks like a substantial loser for the studio, as well as a cautionary tale about budgets gone wild.

“In terms of original content, keeping the budget under control is paramount,” says Jeff Bock, box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations. “If all goes well, you can spend that money on the sequel.”

Focus Features mitigated liability by co-producing and co-financing the film with New Regency. But “The Northman” needs to become a searing sensation in overseas markets to avoid drowning either company in red ink. So far, “The Northman” has raised just $11.5 million from 41 international markets, bringing its worldwide total to $23.5 million.

In North America, box office wise men predict “The Northman” will end its theatrical run with $30-40 million. Although critics have defended the film, a “B” CinemaScore from ticket buyers means word of mouth will only get it so far. (That’s probably why “The Northman” was released nationwide to begin with, rather than as a platform release, which is destined to slowly gain traction.)

This reality means that the film has a lot of catching up to do internationally. Box office experts estimate that “The Northman” needs to generate at least $140 million worldwide to cover its production budget. However, adding tens of millions of dollars in marketing means a movie like “The Northman” probably needs to earn close to $200 million to break even on theatrical release. In this case, Focus has a bit of flexibility in its finances due to Universal’s deal with exhibitors to get movies to digital platforms in as little as 17 days. Expect the company to put “The Northman” on premium video-on-demand and its parent company’s Peacock streamer as soon as legally possible – then pray to Odin for the films to become an instant cult hit.

Artistically, “The Northman” appears to be a triumph, with critics raving about its visual flair and bold vision. Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Björk and Willem Dafoe star in the film, which is based on the legend of Amleth. (Did Focus execs mistake Amleth for a Marvel character when they greenlighted the film with an exorbitant budget?) For AV Club, critic Tomris Laffly wrote, “Eggers’ immersive approach and stylistic style create one wild, applause-worthy fight scene after another, reminding viewers why he is one of the most unique visual artists working today.” Additionally, “The Northman” proved that Eggers can work with a huge budget, which could be crucial for Universal if the director was interested in overseeing a franchise movie.

Internally, studio executives were thrilled with the film and its critical consensus. But in today’s theatrical landscape, traditional Hollywood actors can’t pour so much into theatrical films, if they want to make money on top of the art. Focus being a small cog in a publicly traded media conglomerate like NBCUniversal, it’s a pretty safe assumption that they care about the former, not just the latter. Other studios have managed to take risks on less certain business prospects, such as Channing Tatum’s road-trip comedy “Dog” ($61 million domestically) and Paramount’s gonzo sequel “Jackass Forever.” ($57 million domestic), as they were able to maintain budgets. to get too big.

With “The Northman”, Focus Features does not accentuate superfluous details, such as the film’s budget or the financial results. The studio called the weekend’s result a “success on every level.”

“We are thrilled that such a bold and daring film will resonate with audiences around the world,” said Lisa Bunnell, President of National Distribution for Focus Features. “It’s a massive artistic achievement and a win for us in the business. We’ve always believed in Robert Eggers’ singular vision as a groundbreaking filmmaker – and we’re thrilled to be on this journey with him.