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3 Reasons Why Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Detroit’ Underperformed at the Box Office

What happened to “Detroit”?

Annapurna’s first major distribution effort got off to a strong start in limited release. But Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s latest collaboration collapsed during its expansion — “Detroit” is only expected to take in $7.3 million this weekend, below original estimates.

“We wish more people would have showed,” Annapurna’s distribution head Erik Lomis said on a call Sunday morning. “But when you look at the movie, we’re proud of the film, and we stand behind the message of the film.”

Rotten Tomatoes, which has fallen under scrutiny from some studio executives for having the capability to keep viewers away who might otherwise enjoy a movie, can’t be blamed for this one. “Detroit’s” aggregate score gleams 88 percent fresh. It wasn’t really for lack of audience enthusiasm either. Exit polls show over 80 percent of the audience gave the movie positive marks, and over 60 percent indicated that they would definitely recommend it. Those numbers typically give the distributor hope that word of mouth will help boost the movie’s long-term financials. But what got “Detroit” in this situation in the first place that it now has to work from behind?

1. Bleak Subject Matter

“Detroit” — a dramatization of racially-charged police terrorism during the city’s 1967 12th Street Riot — is admittedly a difficult sell. “It’s a tough movie,” Boal said in Variety’s cover story about the film. “The movie is challenging to watch. We’re in a difficult spot in the world right now, and I’m hopeful that audiences will respond to the challenge that the movie poses and appreciate not being talked down to.”

Even the positive reviews have noted the movie’s unflinching and brutal portrayal of the events it depicts. Such a serious and political movie automatically poses a certain barrier to entry.

2. Bold Release Date

Annapurna released “Detroit” with a strategic date in mind — the 50-year anniversary of the events depicted in the film. But the movie’s $30 million budget, auteurist vision, and subject matter make it a far cry from the special effects-heavy blockbusters or wild comedic romps that audiences have come to expect during the summer.

“Great movies for smart people can be released at any time, particularly for filmmakers of the Kathryn Bigelow ilk,” Lomis argued. “I don’t have any hesitation [about the release date].”

And yet, the numbers stand. For comparison’s sake, the rollout differed from Bigelow’s last movie, “Zero Dark Thirty.” Like “Detroit,” the movie started in limited release before opening wide. But It was positioned at the end of the year, and spent three weeks in a handful of locations before expanding to earn $24.4 million during its first week wide, and eventually $95.7 million. They’re different films, “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Detroit.” But with such a long window until awards season debate really takes off, “Detroit” is less likely to hold attention.

3. A Conflicted Zeitgeist

Movies, now more than ever, require an event-factor to draw an audience. And while “Detroit,” with its political and timely story, has entered the cultural consciousness, it has done so in a complex way. For one, it has become a touchstone for an ongoing cultural conversation regarding what type of creator gets to tell what story (In “Detroit’s” case, should a white creative team take on a story centered around the abuse of black men?)

Bigelow came prepared with an answer in Variety’s cover story: “I thought, ‘Am I the perfect person to tell this story? No,’” she said. “However, I’m able to tell this story, and it’s been 50 years since it’s been told.”

That answer did not suffice for those like Angelica Jade Bastien, whose review on RogerEbert.com was shared widely on social media. “‘Detroit’ was directed, written, produced, shot, and edited by white creatives who do not understand the weight of the images they hone in on with an unflinching gaze,” she wrote in one of her review’s opening paragraphs.

The question of “How does online backlash impact a product’s commercial prospects?” is a difficult one to answer. It is not uncommon for any movie to be met with a certain level of outrage — the internet does not seem to have a shortage. Perhaps the largest controversy surrounding “Dunkirk” — Nolan’s insistence on how it was watched — arguably only encouraged fans to pay up for a more deluxe viewing experience, and helped its bottom line. But the questions haunting “Detroit” are more difficult and layered than most, and could have caused an otherwise interested viewer to wait for the dust to settle before paying up.

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