Despite film festival raves and endorsements from celebrities like Ryan Reynolds, Taylor Swift and Mindy Kaling, Annapurna’s “Booksmart” wasn’t able to earn high marks during its opening weekend. Olivia Wilde’s coming-of-age comedy sputtered with $6.9 million, a disappointing start for a movie that debuted in over 2,500 theaters across North America.
The raunchy R-rated movie is a stark reminder that even glowing word of mouth and strong reviews aren’t always enough when punching up against big-budget blockbusters. “Booksmart” is one of a handful of indie hopefuls trying to cut through and find an audience amid a crowded summer slate. Will its underwhelming ticket sales signal trouble for other film festival favorites coming down the pike?
Amazon Studios is attempting to avoid a similar fate for “Late Night,” a comedy starring Kaling and Emma Thompson. The film, which debuted to critical acclaim at Sundance and secured one of the biggest deals at the festival, was initially slated to open nationwide on June 7 against X-Men installment “Dark Phoenix” and “The Secret Life of Pets 2.” Instead, the studio recently opted for a smaller release in New York and Los Angeles before expanding the movie the following weekend. Other festival darlings like Amazon’s “Brittany Runs a Marathon” and A24’s “The Farewell,” a family drama with Awkwafina, are also electing for platform releases.
Analysts suggest that strategy, rather than a nationwide debut, might have helped “Booksmart” fare better among moviegoers and stay above the fray as box office competition continues to heat up during the summer. A platform release, in which studios open a film in a handful of venues and slowly expand the theater count, allows a movie to build an audience and raise awareness.
Not everyone is following that approach. This summer, “Blinded by the Light,” a feel-good film set to the tunes of Bruce Springsteen, and Annapurna’s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” starring Cate Blanchett are opting for wide release debuts.
“We are in full summer mode. You have to open [strong] that first weekend. That’s the summer game because you’re not going to last long [in theaters],” said Jeff Bock, an analyst at Exhibitor Relations.
Erik Lomis, president of United Artists Releasing, which distributed “Booksmart,” said the company opted to release “Booksmart” nationwide after its strong reaction at SXSW, where the film drew favorable comparisons to classic teen movies like “Superbad.” “Booksmart” resonated with young female moviegoers, but it failed to break out beyond its core demographic.
“We have always believed that audiences love this film and tried to bring it to a broader audience,” Lomis said. “We are expecting the film to play well into the summer. It is fantastic to see public figures come out in support of the film; but also, young women and others across the country that are taking to social media to tell their friends how much they enjoyed the movie, which is equally powerful.”
Even with a blockbuster-heavy slate, it’s not impossible for such indies to find success during the heat of summer. Sundance hits like “Little Miss Sunshine” and “The Big Sick” are prime examples of the benefits of a limited theatrical release allowing a film to grow an audience over time. And in the past, if films weren’t able to break out among theater-goers, they’ve often found a vibrant life on home entertainment platforms. But with the rise in streaming options like Netflix and Hulu, disc sales are a small fraction of what they used to be, leaving studios unable to depend on that kind of revenue.
United Artists Releasing, a joint distribution venture between Annapurna and MGM, dated “Booksmart” for late May, hoping that timing would coincide with high schoolers who are graduating themselves and want to reminisce before heading off to college. However, the release date was another misstep, and cutting through the noise of Disney’s “Aladdin” remake, which saw a $100 million-plus debut, proved to be a struggle over the hyper-competitive Memorial Day weekend. Movie theater marquees are only going to get more packed as “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” “Rocketman” and “Ma” join the box office race next weekend.
“Booksmart” could have benefited by taking a page from “Blockers,” another bawdy R-rated comedy about a group of high schoolers. That film had bigger stars and the backing of a major Hollywood studio in Universal Pictures to spearhead marketing, but more notably, its early April release gave it enough room before summer blockbuster season was in full swing. “Blockers,” which also debuted at SXSW to high praise, opened with $21 million and ended its theatrical run with a solid $94 million gross.
Over the weekend, Wilde encouraged her 1.77 million Twitter followers to see “Booksmart” during opening weekend, noting that Hollywood has long failed to give female filmmakers the same kind of chances that male directors enjoy. “We are getting creamed by the big dogs out there and need your support,” she wrote. “Don’t give studios an excuse not to green-light movies made by and about women.”
Bock, on the other hand, is confident that even if “Booksmart” fails to become a box office hit, Hollywood will continue to recognize Wilde’s work and will send compelling projects her way.
“It makes Olivia Wilde one of the hottest directors working today. The right people — critics, studio executives — are supporting her film,” Bock said. “Whatever she does next is going to be a big deal.”