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Forget Film Critics: For Indie Films With Wider Aims, It May Come Down to CinemaScore

"It Comes at Night" and "Megan Leavey" got good reviews, and made it to the box office top 10 — but it's their very different CinemaScores that may foretell their long-term success.

"It Comes At Night"

“It Comes at Night”

Recent box-office struggles of “The Mummy” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” have studios shaking their fists at reviews aggregator Rotten Tomatoes for alerting audiences to negative critical consensus. (Or, as an indie marketing exec tartly observed to Vanity Fair, “It’s a ridiculous argument that Rotten Tomatoes is the problem. Fuck you — make a good movie!”)

However, two films from specialized distributors in last weekend’s top 10 reveal another powerful critical voice at work. A24’s “It Comes at Night” placed at #6 with $6 million, while Bleecker Street’s “Megan Leavey” landed at #8 with $3.8 million. Neither take is especially impressive, but the key to assessing the films’ longer-term futures may lie not in the reviews from respected critics — on whose opinions indie films traditionally live and die — but from the lowly CinemaScore, the 39-year-old opening-night polling service that asks audiences to grade movies on a scale of A to F.

READ MORE: ‘It Comes at Night’: Why A24 Took a Gamble on a New Filmmaker’s Ambitious Horror Vision

CinemaScore ballots are known for results that seem to grade on a very generous curve; anything lower than B+ is considered mixed at best. And while “It Comes at Night” and “Megan Leavey” each have solid marks from Rotten Tomatoes — 86% and 80%, respectively — it’s the CinemaScores of D and A that may foretell their long-term prospects.

“It Comes at Night”

Screenshot/A24

CinemaScore usually doesn’t have much resonance for indie films, which target niche audiences rather than the general public. However, when specialized distributors find the opportunity to go wide, the court of public opinion may be the one that matters most.

For both distributors, their strategy was a smart one: Target a date in the heart of the summer-movie calendar with only one new studio release. “The Mummy” didn’t offer any threat, and the distributors knew that theaters would be readily available.

Trey Edward Shults’ “It Comes at Night” found critical acclaim, if below that of other non-studio horror films like “It Follows,” “The Witch,” and “Snowpiercer” (along with “The Babadook,” “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” and of course Blumhouse Prods.’ “Get Out”). However, it still had indie cred and a compelling cast led by Joel Edgerton and Riley Keough.

A24 produced it in-house for less than $5 million; marketing expenses would be that-plus, given its wide release (2,533 theaters). The campaign focused on targeted ads and a strong social media footprint. Still, results fell below opening expectations of $7 million-$10 million, and a hoped-for placement of at least #5. It could struggle to gross much more than double its opening weekend.

The film, set in a remote woods tale where a family escapes from widespread disaster, received strong reviews as an effective psychological thriller and intense mystery. However, audiences found a claustrophobic tale filled with impending dread and few conventional thrills. Rotten tomato, tohmato.

So what happened? A24 has been here before: After “The Witch” received acclaim at Toronto and Sundance, A24 released it in over 2,000 theaters for an opening weekend just under $9 million. Reviews were stellar, but CinemaScore was a terrible C- from audiences who expected real scares and found atmospheric tension. Still, it ultimately grossed $25 million, with an additional $15 million overseas. Not bad for a $3 million productions.

By comparison, “It Comes at Night” opened in 500 more theaters, and a D-for-dreadful CinemaScore. It dropped 15 percent Saturday (by comparison, “The Witch” was off by two percent), and opened around a quarter less than “The Witch.” The prognosis is for a quick run that will likely not exceed two weeks in many theaters. The CinemaScore suggests audiences didn’t get what they came for, and that’s a formula for bad word of mouth. It also shows the risks of marketing that gets initial interest, but conflicts with the actual experience — and here, it doesn’t matter how much the critics liked it. Still, “The Witch” showed that it’s possible to rebound.

Shults got attention for “Krisha,” which A24 also released. In its burgeoning production side, the company showed unquestionable skill in taking an indie director like Barry Jenkins and backing him with “Moonlight.” But that was an arthouse, festival, and awards-aimed film. It’s a different challenge to create wide-audience successes.

Kate Mara Megan Leavey

“Megan Leavey”

Imagination Worldwide

By comparison, “Megan Leavey” had a weaker opening weekend, and an unremarkable 80% on Rotten Tomatoes — but its CinemaScore is a solid A. Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite (“Blackfish”), “Megan Leavey” is based on a true story about a Marine and the dog with whom she forms an unbreakable bond. Released in 1,956 theaters, it’s by far the widest initial release from Bleecker Street. (Prior to that, “Eye in the Sky” held the record with around 1,000 theaters.)

The result was a lower per-theater average than “It Comes at Night” — but this heartland-targeted, general-audience story will have a healthier run. It has the same CinemaScore as “Wonder Woman,” and an A is rare for independent productions with little star appeal.

READ MORE: ‘Megan Leavey’ Review: Kate Mara Heroically Saves An Uneven Military Biopic That Can’t Stop Chasing Its Tail

Finally, its Saturday uptick of 19 percent was the best for any new wide movie in four weeks, with the Sunday gross coming in slightly above the initial estimate. That suggests an older audience is discovering the film, and though initial numbers weren’t strong, it could make up for that by sustaining a multiple-week run.

Acquisition details for the film, along with its initial budget, have not been revealed, so assessing its financial success is guesswork. That said, its U.S. military subject should mean its appeal will be largely domestic — although it could make $12 million or more, if it holds like top-rated Cinemascore films often do. It comes from LD Entertainment, whose prior films include “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” “Jackie,” “The Grey,” and Anthropoid,” which Bleecker Street also released.

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