Last weekend, MGM released Three Thousand Years of Longing. The film was dead on arrival.
On paper, this seems strange. Three Thousand Years of Longing was director George Miller’s follow-up to Mad Max: Fury Road. Fury Road was a cultural phenomenon. It earned 10 Oscar nominations and won six of those, more than any other film that year. More recently, publications like The A.V. Club, USA Today, and World of Reel deemed Fury Road the film of the decade. As such, the release of a new George Miller film should be a big deal.
However, Three Thousand Years of Longing failed to make any impression at the box office. It earned only $2.87 million from 2,436 screens, with reporter Rebecca Rubin noting, “It’s a terrible result for a movie that’s playing in thousands of theaters across the country.” That’s a very disappointing outcome, particularly for a project that is as ambitious and as striking as Three Thousand Years of Longing. Even allowing for the temperate reviews, it’s a film that deserves an audience.
This summer has been a fairly underwhelming blockbuster season for the franchise films that dominate the cultural landscape, allowing for impressive early releases like The Batman or streaming movies like Prey. However, the season has produced an endearing selection of off-kilter mid-to-low-budget productions like The Northman, Everything Everywhere All at Once, X, Men, Elvis, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, and Nope. Three Thousand Years of Longing ranks among those.
While movies like Everything Everywhere All at Once and Elvis have been the unexpected box office success stories of the summer, the high-profile underperformance of films like The Northman and Three Thousand Years of Longing suggest audiences should enjoy these eclectic movies while they can. It’s hard to imagine studios greenlighting similarly ambitious low-to-mid-budget projects in the future. Indeed, it seems a miracle that Three Thousand Years of Longing happened at all.
If Three Thousand Years of Longing feels like the product of a different time, that is because it is. George Miller had been trying to get an adaptation of The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye off the ground for decades. The film’s distribution rights were snatched by MGM in May 2020, more than two years before the film would eventually release in cinemas. A lot happened in those two years. In May 2021, Amazon announced its plans to buy MGM. The deal would close in March 2022.
These sorts of mergers and acquisitions are increasingly common in the increasingly volatile industry, as the major players set about consolidating their interests. In the past few years alone, Disney purchased 20th Century Fox while Warner Bros. shifted ownership from AT&T to Discovery Media. There have long been rumors (and denials) about the possibility of Netflix buying Paramount. It’s worth stressing that these are major studios with long and rich histories.
These shifts take place at the highest levels of these organizations. However, the effects ripple downward, particularly to projects that began under one set of management and release under another. New leadership can rarely muster enthusiasm for the work of their predecessors. This is true even without a change in ownership. One of the challenges that faced famous box office bomb John Carter was a shift in leadership at Disney during its production, from Dick Cook to Rich Ross.
More recently, the non-franchise films that were greenlit at 20th Century Fox floundered in the transition to Disney. During the pandemic, Disney found itself contractually obligated to provide a theatrical release for well-reviewed auteur-driven projects like The Last Duel, West Side Story, The French Dispatch, and Nightmare Alley. While director Ridley Scott refused to blame poor promotion for the failure of The Last Duel, there was a sense that Disney’s heart wasn’t in these releases.
Nightmare Alley was released in cinemas opposite Sony’s mega-hit Spider-Man: No Way Home, which meant that cinemas simply chose not to screen it. Incidentally, under the terms of its deal with Sony, Disney made a sizable chunk of change on No Way Home. With West Side Story, the studio had a potential Oscars frontrunner, important for a company that has yet to win Best Picture. However, Disney split its awards spending with Marvel properties like Black Widow and Eternals.
None of this is to suggest any malice or conspiracy. Disney just inherited a slate of really good movies that did not line up with its corporate philosophy, and so it either didn’t know or didn’t care how to market them. The trend was so apparent that Miles Surrey mused that “a pattern has been established, and it doesn’t look good” before the release of Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile, another 20th Century Fox holdover that was dead at the box office.
To be fair, Disney could muster up enthusiasm when working with inherited projects that did fit with its brand objectives. Free Guy became one of the unexpected box office hits of 2021, in large part because Disney got behind it. The film integrated so neatly into Disney’s model that reshoots even folded in intellectual property from brands like Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So these sorts of shake-ups aren’t always bad, if the films in question fit with the new owners’ identity.
So, what exactly does Amazon want from MGM? Most obviously, it is attempting to compensate for one of its perceived weaknesses as compared to other streaming services operated by major studios like Disney or Warner Bros. Amazon only began producing content less than a decade ago, so it doesn’t have a deep library of existing content. It also doesn’t have a lot of recognizable intellectual property, which is why it is spending so much on The Rings of Power. Buying MGM fixes these problems.
“The reason for the acquisition seemed like they were after the big titles, the intellectual property, which of course, first and foremost, meant the James Bond franchise,” explains Peter Newman, head of Tisch School of the Arts’ MBA/MFA program at New York University. Bradley Gorham, an associate professor at Syracuse University, agrees, “Amazon is trying to bolster its reserves of intellectual property to take on Disney and WarnerMedia.”
Amazon admits as much. “The real financial value behind this deal is the treasure trove of IP in the deep catalog that we plan to reimagine and develop together with MGM’s talented team,” offered Mike Hopkins, senior vice president of Prime Video and Amazon Studios, in the company’s press release announcing the deal. “It’s very exciting and provides so many opportunities for high-quality storytelling.” That catalog includes the James Bond, Rocky, RoboCop, and Pink Panther franchises.
It seems safe to say that an epic love story about a middle-aged woman (Tilda Swinton) who finds a djinn (Idris Elba) in the backroom of an Istanbul store doesn’t really fit with that objective. It’s difficult to imagine the Three Thousand Years of Longing Shared Universe, just as it’s unlikely that popular demand will lead the cast and crew to reunite for Three Thousand and One Years of Longing. Three Thousand Years of Longing is a film, not a franchise or intellectual property.
Even allowing that Three Thousand Years of Longing doesn’t fit with what Amazon wants from MGM, there is the broader issue that Amazon has never really figured out how to open a movie theatrically. The company famously spent $13M on the comedy Late Night, only for the film to die at the box office because Amazon had no real sense of how movie distribution works. Amazon was such a “disruptor” that it never bothered to learn the rules of the industry it entered.
Of course, evidence suggests Amazon doesn’t really care. To a certain extent, film and television are just a minor distraction for the company, akin to the magazine rack at the grocery store cashier counter. Amazon’s purchase of MGM was just part of a larger splurge that included companies like Whole Foods and One Medical. Indeed, the big rollout of The Rings of Power this weekend is such a big deal precisely because it’s the rare multimedia release that does have stakes for Amazon.
Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon play by different rules than the major studios. Theatrical releases were so unimportant to them that they would often simply choose not to report box office on their high-profile releases. Three Thousand Years of Longing arguably suffered from the same problems that faced Late Night, eschewing a slow word-of-mouth-building “platform” rollout for a “big bang” wide 2,000+ screen release for a movie unsuited to the model.
The box office failure of Three Thousand Years of Longing is unlikely to matter to MGM’s new owners. It seems unlikely to even be a footnote in management presentations about the looming release of The Rings of Power. It’s also debatable to what extent this underperformance might have a serious impact on the kind of films that MGM produces going forward. Three Thousand Years of Longing was unlikely to have been a movie that Amazon would have ever greenlit.
Three Thousand Years of Longing is a film that feels utterly unlike so many of the movies that get theatrical releases these days, which is perhaps why it got lost so easily in the shuffle of this new ownership. Given current trends, it seems unlikely that there will be too many more movies like it in the near future. At this point, it will take more than wishing to bring them back.