Box Office: Guillermo del Toro’s ‘Nightmare Alley’ Finds New Life in Black and White

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Guillermo del Toro is nothing if not determined.

When his new film, Nightmare Alley, opened nationwide over the Dec. 17-19 weekend to a forgettable $2.8 million from 2,145 theaters, the Oscar-winning filmmaker didn’t flee and instead reverse-engineered the movie’s release, this time with a black-and-white version.

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On Jan. 28, Nightmare Alley will once again be showing nationwide, or in roughly 1,020 locations, The Hollywood Reporter has learned. The vast majority of those cinemas, or around 750, will be showing it in black and white. Some will play both versions, while a small number will feature color only.

Del Toro and Searchlight Pictures knew Nightmare Alley faced intense challenges, led by another surge in COVID-19 cases, which stymied the box office recovery. The prestige movie needed older adults to launch successfully nationwide, yet consumers over 35 remain the most nervous about returning to cinemas. And while this demo had started to trickle back, omicron proved a major setback.

Spider-Man: No Way Home, which likewise opened Dec. 17, also didn’t help. Multiple films opening over the year-end holidays can prosper in normal times, but not during the pandemic.

As the Christmas-to-New Year’s corridor unfolded, Nightmare Alley still failed to gain traction at the box office even as it garnered awards attention, including landing on AFI’s list of the year’s best films.

“The biggest curve was omicron, and there was no way we could battle that. Audiences were fearful,” del Toro tells THR.

Del Toro soon had an idea: release a black-and-white version of the film. By mid-January, the film’s theater count had dropped dramatically to several hundred theaters as Searchlight and del Toro began showing the black-and-white cut in some of those cinemas to sold-out crowds. Del Toro hit the road and personally introduced some of the screenings. The cast also participated, with Bradley Cooper attending four events in the past week in New York.

Cinema operators, eager for product as January wore on, asked to book the black-and-white version.

“This second release grew organically from interacting with audiences. It was very encouraging,” del Toro says. “This will allow the movie to grow past the peak weeks of omicron.”

If there is a campaign slogan to describe del Toro’s strategy, he says it would be: “How I got away with getting it released in black and white.”

Based on the 1947 film noir classic from 20th Century Fox, the well-reviewed film stars Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara and Willem Dafoe. To date, Nightmare Alley has grossed just north of $9.6 million domestically.

Earlier this week, it was nominated for top cinematography, costume and production design awards, among other honors.

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