The reasons why Suspiria (2018) was set to fail

This past year, two of the best horror films in modern history were released: Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria and Ari Aster’s Hereditary. Both films are extremely polarizing, and both films have gained an instantaneous cult following right after their release.

Despite great performances and high-quality filmmaking, the Academy has, yet again, failed to recognize the art and value of films labeled as “horror”. The only horror film to ever win the best picture Oscar is The Silence of the Lambs, back in 1992.

While we had strong hopes of seeing Toni Collette nominated for best actress for her performance in Hereditary — A24 has experience in Oscar campaigns —, deep down we all knew this would be unlikely, thanks to the conservative members of the Academy. On the other hand, Amazon Studios seemed to be willing to give it a shot and make Suspiria an award season contender. In this text, I want to discuss the strange and messy decisions surrounding the film’s theatrical run, the lawsuit that followed the first official trailer, the weird and all over the place release schedule and how it affected the final box office gross. So buckle up, you are in for a ride.

Suspiria premiered at the 75th Venice International Film Festival — like other Oscar-nominated movies such as The Favourite or Roma —, where it received an eight-minute standing ovation but also mixed reviews. The movie was then screened in other film festivals and got a limited release in Los Angeles and New York on October 26, followed by a limited release on Halloween in selected U.S. cities, before its “wide” release on November 2. The term “wide” must be used loosely. Box Office Mojo reports the movie only opened in 311 theatres (as an example, Hereditary opened in
2,998). In consequence, many horror fans did not get to see it in theatres.

The limited release of Suspiria looked suspicious. Was Amazon planning to cover the mandatory theatrical release to qualify for best picture at the Academy Awards? Probably. Would they release the movie on Amazon Prime Video after a hypothetical nomination? We will never know.

In any case, the Oscars always play it safe, and Suspiria is not a film meant for everyone. The film’s polarized reviews killed the chances of an Oscar nomination. Is more than likely that this made some Amazon executives panic. After the mixed reviews coming from the festival circuit, it is likely that the studio had to re-think how they wanted to market the film. It would no longer be an art house film with the Academy’s seal of approval. So, what could they do?

In Europe, the film got released across mid and late November with almost no promotion. Streaming company MUBI secured the distribution rights in the UK, which again made me think the film will be available to stream after a short theatrical release, but this wasn’t the case. MUBI released the film in over 100 theatres on November 16. I was fortunate enough to be able to go and see it at the only cinema in my city that played the film — it only played for a week, with one screening per day around 10pm. In Italy, the home country of director Luca Guadagnino, the film’s release was delayed to January 1. 14 days later the movie was all over the internet.

In the U.S., Suspiria was released on VOD and Blu-ray on January 15 and January 29, respectively. To this date, the film has not been released on VOD nor Blu-ray in the UK and other European countries. I did some digging and found that the Blu-ray release in France is scheduled for April 3 — hopefully, it will be released in other countries on the same date, too.

This messy release strategy is probably the reason why, according to Box Office Mojo, the film has only grossed over $7,5 million worldwide (on a reported $20 million budget), making the project a commercial failure. Now, to add insult to injury, let’s talk about Ana Mendieta.

Ana Mendieta was a Cuban American artist. She died, at the age of 36, after falling from a window in her New York apartment. Her death is surrounded by controversy. Mendieta’s husband, artist Carl Andre, was accused of pushing her out of the window. Neighbors heard the couple screaming and he later admitted they were having an argument prior to Ana’s death. He was tried and acquitted. Mendieta’s works, according to Wikipedia, “focused on themes including feminism, violence, life, death, identity, place and belonging”. If you have watched Suspiria, you know these are central elements of the film. Therefore, paying homage to Mendieta’s art seems fitting. But there’s a thin line separating inspiration and copyright infringement.

Ana Mendieta’s works and images from Suspiria (2018)

Prior to the film’s release, Variety reported that Amazon Studios was being sued by the Estate of Ana Mendieta. The first official trailer for Suspiria included scenes that bored a resemblance to the defunct artist’s most famous works.

The estate sent a cease and desist letter to Amazon in July. In late August, Amazon dropped a second trailer that did not contain the images. The studio screened the film for the estate’s agent in early September, after it premiered at the Venice Film Festival.
According to the suit, the two images had been removed from the film, but the agent flagged eight others that also bore similarities to Mendieta’s work.

Gene Maddaus for Variety

Do you have any response to the estate of Ana Mendieta’s allegations that you appropriated her work?
None at all?

Luca Guadagnino interviewed by Rich Juzwiak for The Muse.

You can see a copy of the copyright infringement lawsuit in Variety’s article. The case was settled out of court, which means that the film was already losing money prior to its release.

Suspiria is not the only flop Amazon Studios had to deal with during this award season. Beautiful Boy, starring Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carell has grossed over $14,5 million worldwide on a budget of $25 million. But, unlike Suspiria, this film has been released on Amazon Prime, and Chalamet has earned nominations at the Golden Globes, BAFTA, and Screen Actors Guild Awards for his performance. Ultimately, Amazon can afford to lose money on films that are going to help build the studio’s reputation and prestige. However, it is up to you to decide if Suspiria achieved this, or if the film was treated with respect by the studio.

In my opinion, Suspiria would have benefitted from a wider release and marketing campaign. It should have followed the same route as Hereditary. Instead, Amazon managed to make all the wrong decisions and the film was quickly forgotten by the mainstream public. It didn’t help that those who were willing to spend their money and support the film were denied the chance to see it on the big screen — or buy the Blu-ray.

I think it’s fair to say that Suspiria was set to fail from the very beginning. The lawsuit was not a good start, and the mixed reviews after the festival circuit probably killed the film’s chances of becoming an award season contender. The limited releases were a good way to build hype, but they are totally unnecessary if a real wide release doesn’t follow. This commercial flop could have been avoided with a good marketing strategy and salvaged, perhaps, with a quick Amazon Prime Video release. With that being said, I believe, with time, Suspiria will receive the love it deserves. In the meantime, let’s find comfort in the fact that Suspiria won two Independent Spirit Awards and this is the only image we will have that slightly resembles an Oscar win.