"First Man," the Neil Armstrong biopic about the 1969 moon landing, failed to blast off in the box office weekend following a heated controversy over director Damien Chazelle's decision to omit the astronaut's planting of the American flag on the lunar surface.
"The visceral historical drama got grounded in its domestic debut with $16.5 million, despite positive reviews," The Hollywood Reporter reports. Internationally, "First Man" performed even worse, earning just $8.6 million in 22 markets. With a production price tag of $70 million plus another $50 to $100 million in marketing costs, the film could be a major loss for Universal Pictures.
Despite the poor numbers, Universal has expressed confidence the film will perform well over time after getting major boosts this coming awards season, during which it is expected to be nominated for various top prizes.
"Our core audience, adult males, don’t necessarily run out on opening weekend," says Jim Orr, Universal's president of domestic distribution. "We'll have a great run for weeks and months to come."
Though critics have heaped praise upon the film with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 88%, audiences have been less enthusiastic. It holds just a 7.7 rating on IMDB with a B+ audience rating on CinemaScore. On Rotten Tomatoes, the audience rating was even worse at just 60%.
In fairness to Orr, his projection that "First Man" could pull in big numbers over time is not without precedent. Both "Bridge of Spies" and "Argo" debuted to dismal box office receipts but went on to gross well past the $150 million mark during awards season. The big BUT to that, however, is that none of those films were dogged by the same controversy "First Man" stepped into the moment its star Ryan Gosling said the American flag planting was intentionally omitted.
"I think this was widely regarded in the end as a human achievement [and] that's how we chose to view it," Gosling said of the decision.
After hearing of this, Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, blasted the film, prompting a fierce backlash. Since no evidence currently exists that the controversy is spurring the bad performance, time will tell if the critical success of "First Man" will propel it to financial success.