LOS ANGELES—Quentin Tarantino’s new movie “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” will have to do a lot more than summon the sizzle of 1960s Los Angeles if it is going to buck recent moviegoing trends. It will have to defy a harsh box-office reality.
With the summer movie season once again dominated by comic-book franchises, remakes and sequels, Mr. Tarantino’s $100 million love letter to Hollywood recalls a different time, when big-budgeted, R-rated dramas brandishing A-list movie stars stood a decent chance of turning a profit.
’s Sony Pictures Entertainment releases “Hollywood” this Friday, it won’t have recent history on its side. The movie is expected to take in around $30 million during its first weekend in the U.S. and Canada, a lukewarm start for a project that once had studios competing for the chance to make it.
Despite stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, and Mr. Tarantino’s penchant for cinematic showmanship, the film is an anomaly today, a 161-minute movie based on an original concept and marketed primarily to adults. Mr. DiCaprio plays a has-been star of westerns who, with his best friend (Mr. Pitt), navigates a changing Hollywood and a Los Angeles taken over by hippies and the mysterious Manson Family cult.
The Tarantino movie features scenes with actors portraying high-profile figures of the time, like Bruce Lee and Steve McQueen, and draws inspiration from the film industry during the ’60s, an era when westerns and gritty dramas were able to rank among the most commercially successful films.
Unlike in the heady days of 1969, the year when “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” was No. 1 at the box office and when “Hollywood” is set, the marketplace today is crowded with family-friendly films and franchises based on existing characters and stories. “Hollywood” is the only big-budget summer release that isn’t based on a comic book or existing franchise.
The movie’s biggest challenge will be persuading adults, who are increasingly likely to stream R-rated content at home, to go to the movie theater. Since 2016, only one R-rated drama, “A Star Is Born,” has ranked among the year’s 20 most-successful theatrical releases.
Big studios eager to land Mr. Tarantino’s next film began wooing him in 2017.
’s Warner Bros. had 1960s vintage cars parked on the studio lot when the director came for his meeting. Ultimately, though, the studio decided “Hollywood” was too costly a bet, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Sony won the movie, agreeing to Mr. Tarantino’s request for a $100 million budget. Besides some middling returns with lower-budget thrillers like “Escape Room” and “The Intruder,” the studio has managed only one hit this year, “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” which has grossed $320 million domestically. Sony’s other big summer sequel, “Men in Black International,” flopped despite costing $110 million.
Sony gave Mr. Tarantino a long leash, even agreeing to let him film in Hollywood, an unlikely location. Filming in Los Angeles, while key to the movie’s story, breaks with recent norms. Feature-film productions have fled California in search of savings as generous tax-subsidy programs have grown in Georgia and the U.K. The California state tax credit that “Hollywood” received brought the budget down to about $90 million.
The movie’s filming took over Los Angeles in a way that hasn’t been seen since the tax-credit exodus. Background actors in bouffant hairstyles sat in idling retro cars on the freeway, waiting for Mr. Tarantino to begin shooting. The production even shut down a portion of the 101 Freeway the afternoon of the 2018 midterm elections.
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A $30 million debut would put “Hollywood” slightly behind Mr. Tarantino’s previous summer release, 2009’s “Inglourious Basterds,” which opened with $38.1 million before going on to make a respectable $120.5 million in the U.S. and Canada.
Mr. Tarantino’s highest-grossing film, “Django Unchained,” starred Mr. DiCaprio, and his second-highest, “Inglourious Basterds,” featured Mr. Pitt. Those two, and the cult classic “Pulp Fiction,” are the only three of his films to surpass $100 million at the domestic box office.
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