From the start, “Booksmart” seemed a special kind of movie, earning deep acclaim from early viewers and critics.
The Olivia Wilde-directed film, about two overachieving high-schoolers facing challenges small and serious on graduation eve, drew praise for its honest portrayal of teenage girls.
The results over the past few days didn’t show it, though. The Beanie Feldstein-Kaitlyn Dever comedy took in just $9 million over Memorial Day weekend, and $6.5 million without including Monday. That put it in just sixth place, miles behind “Aladdin’s” $113 million. Many box-office pundits (and fans of the film) wrote of a serious underperformance — a box-office “tragedy.”
Even Wilde got in on the defeatist act. “We are getting creamed by the big dogs out there and need your support,” she tweeted during the weekend. She worried that this could have a disturbing downstream effect. “Don’t give studios an excuse not to green-light movies made by and about women,” she added.
Yet the despair, both for this film and the smart female-led entertainment, may be overstated. For the many of us who saw and loved the movie, and those yet to see and love it, there are reasons the sky isn’t falling (not on this anyway). As much as “Booksmart” suggests a movie industry in sad transformation, it actually doesn’t suggest it all that much.
Here are five of those reasons.
There’s an Annapurna factor
The movie was produced upstart Annapurna Pictures (and released by niche United Artists). That’s occasioned lots of debate about whether it received the right treatment.
Annapurna, founded and run by the auteur-minded financier Megan Ellison (yes, of that Silicon Valley Ellison family), and UA took a specific approach: They marketed the movie heavily on social media, where its teen audience lives, and softly on TV, where it doesn’t (and where time is expensive). In this light, “Booksmart” results may not be a question of audience — they’re a question of how a studio reached that audience.
It’s tough to know whether another studio would have done it better. But chew on this: as a distributor, Annapurna had three notable movies it went wide with recently: the Dick Cheney dark comedy “Vice,” the genre race parable “Sorry to Bother You” and the superhero biopic “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.” The highest-grossing was “Vice” with $8 million. “Marston” barely got to $700,000.
The movie went too far, too fast
One big decision was to go “wide” with the movie — industry-speak for opening on a lot of screens (2,500, here). This was . . . a big gamble. The film has no A-list stars among the high-schoolers. It wins with its lived-in quality and intimate portrayals — with virtues that don’t bring people out on opening weekend.
The more typical approach is to “platform,” to release in a handful of big-city theaters and let word of mouth take hold, then roll out more. Annapurna and UA decided not to do that. And there’s no quantifying how much that hurt it in the long term.
Also, “Booksmart” probably should have come out one or two weeks earlier. Sure, you lose the holiday, but you don’t go up against “Aladdin.”
This actually didn’t go as low under the bar as you’d think
The substantive high school comedy has been a niche offering for years now — “The Edge of Seventeen,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and “The Spectacular Now,” three recent examples of smart movies set in teenage worlds, each failed to reach $20 million in total box office. “Booksmart” is right in line with those.
These modest results are large part because Netflix and other streaming services have been gobbling up the target audience with movies like “Set It Up” and “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before.” Younger viewers are accustomed to seeing these films on their first weekend — at home.
Admittedly this one’s not exactly a cheerful reason. “It’s not just this smart theatrical movie, it’s many smart theatrical movies” doesn’t exactly reassure the jellies. But still, it’s worth seeing the results in context — as consistent with the audience this kind of film gets, not as a disappointment. Plus:
The high school comedy is historically a slow burn
Really slow. Do you know how many weeks it took before “Pretty in Pink” hit the magical $35 million mark? Ten. “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” took two months to get to $50 million. Granted, movies rolled out slower then. But the fact remains: Outside of a few “Superbad-y” exceptions, high school movies catch on slowly in theaters, because they need time for their key factor to kick in: other high-schoolers.
And then there’s “Dazed and Confused,” which never even got to $10 million. Still a classic, and remembered far more than “My Life,” “Another Stakeout” and “Heart and Souls,” three releases that trounced it at the box office that year. Which brings us to …
Box office doesn’t matter so much
On one level, Wilde’s point about results is fair. Hollywood executives look at comparable movies when deciding on a greenlight. The fact that “Booksmart” didn’t open big could give some executives eyeing similar films pause.
But only some executives — and frankly, probably those who didn’t want to pay for a smart female-led comedy in the first place. (Sadly, there were already plenty: There’s a reason this was at Annapurna and UA.)
But even if every theatrical studio executive decides to pass on the next “Booksmart,” that may not be a full-on tragedy. Because there are a lot more places these movies can now get made. The fact that “Booksmart” lost business because of Netflix has a positive flip-side: There are a lot more venues where a talented young filmmaker can finance those movies.
And for that matter, a lot more places where they’ll be seen. “Booksmart” wasn’t devoured in theaters on opening weekend. But it can and likely will be watched elsewhere for years to come. It may not be a hit. But it can still be a classic.