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As ‘Mother!’ struggles at the box office, so does the definition of a must-see movie

In the era of peak TV, the must-see movie has taken on extra-high stakes.

Although 2017 has been a dispiriting year at the box office so far, we’ve witnessed a handful of films break through to become pop-cultural talkers: “Get Out,” “Wonder Woman,” “Dunkirk” and most recently “It” have proved that, given the right subject matter, genre conventions and collective yearning for a you-have-to-be-there experience, the cinema can still generate the kinds of conversations to rival “Game of Thrones” recaps and presidential Twitter feuds.

But can a must-see movie be manufactured after the fact? Darren Aronofsky’s “Mother!,” an audacious horror film swathed in religious, artistic and environmental allegory, is trying desperately to position itself as so controversial that one has to see it — right now — in order to partake of the cultural conversation. After receiving mixed-to-mostly-positive reviews from critics at festivals in Venice and Toronto, the film tanked with that rare species known as the real-life audience: “Mother!” opened last weekend with a dismal F CinemaScore, a grade that might have remained a gentleman’s C were it not for its graphic climax, featuring Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem amid a Boschian, cannibalistic hellscape.

Ann Hornaday reviews ‘Mother!’

Or — here’s a thought! — maybe Mr. and Mrs. Saturday Night just didn’t buy it. Despite its intriguing premise, a magnetic lead performance from Lawrence and a taboo-shattering moment made for water coolers, in the final analysis “Mother!” simply doesn’t work: As the film’s story and style become exponentially more weird and opaque, Aronofsky loses control of the film’s core ideas when the audience needs it most.

But the film's parent studio, Paramount, has nonetheless leaned into the most transgressive elements of "Mother!," with the studio's worldwide president of marketing and distribution, Megan Colligan, defending the film to the Hollywood Reporter after its meager $7.5 million opening: "You are talking about a director at the top of his game and an actress at the top her game," Colligan told the trade publication. "They made a movie that was intended to be bold. Everyone wants original filmmaking, and everyone celebrates Netflix when they tell a story no one else wants to tell. This is our version. We don't want all movies to be safe. And it's okay if some people don't like it."

Colligan’s defensiveness is revealing, understandable and not a little strategic, especially when it comes to Netflix. In recent years, the streaming site has been aggressively scooping up films at festivals, outbidding indie studios and making rich package deals with name filmmakers, assuring them that they’ll reach their widest, most receptive audience with the help of Netflix’s algorithms and user information.

Amazon, whose founder and chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Washington Post, has done Netflix one better, providing star directors not just the promise of data-driven eyeballs on the site but the kind of theatrical release cinematic purists still crave. (Netflix has been more stringent, generally opening its films only in New York and Los Angeles theaters on the same day its films are made available for streaming.)

Few need reminding that this is a fraught and fractious time for legacy studios, which have tied their fates to a business model centering on endless comic-book franchises and special-effects spectacles rather than quirky auteurist statements. Meanwhile, movie stars such as Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern are happily winning Emmys for their work on HBO and David Lynch’s Showtime series, “Twin Peaks: The Return,” has managed to create the precise kind of puzzlement-slash-fascination over the course of 18 episodes that “Mother!” crams into a febrile two hours with little more than a shrug to show for it.

Despite admirably standing by its filmmaker, Paramount clearly overestimated the mass appeal of what is essentially a rarefied art-house curio: “Mother!” cost $30 million to make and opened on 2,400 screens, whereas “Black Swan” — Aronofsky’s equally hallucinatory ballet movie of 2010 — cost $13 million and opened wide gradually after buzz had built up. (It surely didn’t help that “Mother!” was marketed as a horror film and opened opposite “It,” the most successful horror film of the year.)

Despite hopes for generating the kind of controversy that puts tushies in seats, “Mother!” might run afoul of the new realities governing an industry whose survival has always hinged as much on managing expectations as on must-see phenoms.