La La Land is on the radar of many a film buff – partly because of the massively positive word of mouth, partly because of its star power, and partly because it’s reviving a subgenre of musical that hasn’t had prominence in a very long time. The film isn’t animated, it’s not based on an existing Broadway property, and its music is completely original. It also doesn’t fall into the modern trend of providing a rationalization for why its characters are singing (see Glee and Pitch Perfect). Its song and dance numbers are Busby Berkeley, Baz Luhrmann, or even Bollywood-esque – a classic, stylized expression of the inner motivations that drive the plot forward.
La La Land is special, that much is certain. But one way or another, its final box office take is going to answer an important question: is there still a demand for old school musicals in modern day Hollywood? At a reportedly $30 million production budget, the film’s financiers at Lionsgate sure hope so.
La La Land was written and directed by Damien Chazelle, who cut his teeth on the indie musical Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. Five years later, his work exploded into the public consciousness with the Academy Award winning film, Whiplash. This afforded him the buzz to realize La La Land, whose six-year development was a passion project for him and musical collaborator, Justin Hurwitz. The completed film stars Hollywood darlings Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, whose romantic chemistry has been in demand since they appeared together in Crazy, Stupid, Love. This star power may mitigate some the risk the film is undertaking, but it by no means assures a solid payback; Oscar buzz fades and Stone and Gosling have already coupled for a box office misfire in the form of Gangster Squad. La La Land is a massive investment, but its budget (and by extension, its level of spectacle) still fall remarkably short of modern peers like Chicago or Moulin Rouge!
La La Land isn’t a proven property with the name recognition of Les Misérables or The Phantom of the Opera. Its stars, while beloved, aren’t well known for singing and dancing. In fact, their rough-around-the-edges charm distinctly clashes with the clean cut aesthetic of the musical stars of yesteryear. Those who have seen La La Land understand this is part of its purpose – to provide contrast between modern L.A. life and classic Hollywood showmanship. But for the uninitiated, will the promise be enough of a draw to bolster ticket sales?
Deadline recently talked to Chazelle about the difficulty of generating interest in his project to begin with:
“There wasn’t a lot of excitement in the room when we initially pitched La La Land around town. Here we are with an original musical, one that incorporates jazz, and a love story where the protagonists may not wind up together; everything was a further death knell. The genre itself, when it’s not based on a pre-existing property, is a scary thing, but the fact that there haven’t been any in a while was part of the appeal.”
Producer Jordan Horowitz recalled his initial involvement in the project: “We were just like, ‘Literally everything about that is probably wrong, so let’s do it.'”
La La Land eventually found a home with Lionsgate. While the Motion Pictures Group has suffered a number of high-profile flops this year (The Divergent Series: Allegiant, Gods of Egypt), it would be hard to fault their willingness in backing unique projects. Co-president Erik Feig discussed Lionsgate’s approach to backing projects:
“An original Hollywood musical is an unusual decision for any studio in this day, but at Lionsgate and Summit, we often make left-of-center decisions. When you look at the success of both companies under one roof, whether it’s a Tyler Perry comedy, The Hunger Games, Twilight or Warm Bodies, or on the TV side with Orange is the New Black, what’s interesting is that most of what’s worked has been unconventional bets across the board in most genres. When we first made Now You See Me, prior to that, no other movie about magic had been successful… We often ask, how do you compete in a world of $100 million CGI spectacles? Well, we don’t out-CGI spectacle them. We bring something new to the table.”
The strategy is paying off so far. In its soft, 5-theater Los Angeles/New York launch, the film set indie box office records, earning $855,000 its opening weekend. It also fell just short of The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s per-screen record. It expanded to 200 screens in the U.S. on Dec 16th, and has earned $6.6 million at the time of writing. It will officially go nationwide on Christmas, then will open in international territories mid-January.
Factoring in La La Land‘s not inconsiderable Oscar buzz, (and current Rotten Tomatoes rating of 94% from a consensus of 195 reviews), it’s a fair bet that the film will get by on prestige alone. Considering the film’s subject matter (artistic people doing artistic things in L.A.) makes the film perfect Oscar bait, it almost seems incomprehensible that it won’t at least be nominated for some major categories in the Academy Awards. At this point though, even an Oscar snub would generate enough critical editorials to boost the project’s visibility. Even if La La Land doesn’t explode in quite the way Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest did ($174.8 million worldwide on a $25 million budget), it seems very likely that it will be a risk that has paid off.
Assuming the prediction comes true, La La Land‘s success could trigger a modern movement of mid-budget musicals in its wake. If audiences are really lucky, film producers will focus on the actual reason for the film’s success – its thoughtful deconstruction of a beloved genre and critique of Hollywood’s tendency to romanticize the uglier natures of the industry. While betting against market trends in genre and subject matter will always be a risky endeavor, the long-term viability of the film industry depends on artful steps into the unknown. Modern audiences are sophisticated enough, and have enough alternate options, to demand more from their entertainment. With 2016’s crowded box office heralding a swath of massively budgeted bombs in the form of “sure fire” reboots and sequels, risk-taking and creativity are more important than ever before.