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Why Oscar-Winning Stars Flopped at the Summer Box Office

For Brie Larson, Matthew McConaughey, and Casey Affleck, summer proved to be the cruelest season.

The Glass Castle

“The Glass Castle”

In what’s been a fairly wretched summer box-office season, Oscar-winners Casey Affleck, Brie Larson, and Matthew McConaughey had some of the worst of it with “A Ghost Story,” “The Glass Castle,” and “The Dark Tower.” Casting didn’t drive those failures, but possessing Hollywood’s most-coveted award offered little or no bottom-line benefit.

Beyond creating certain mention in the first sentence of an obituary, the long-term impact of an Oscar is never clear. In the 15 years since Halle Berry won an Oscar for “Monster’s Ball,” her roles have ranged from decorative to derivative — a trend that continued with this late-summer’s release of the low-budget, don’t-mess-with-Mama thriller “Kidnap.”

Still, is it too much to expect a short-term uptick in interest and box office? The summer of 2017 suggests that may be the case.

Kong Skull Island

“Kong: Skull Island”

Warner Bros.

Brie Larson
Best Actress, 2016
Oscar-winning film: “Room,” A24 ($14.7M)

Since “Room,” Larson starred in three releases. The biggest is Universal’s “Kong: Skull Island,” which opened March 10 and grossed $567 million worldwide — but Larson seems like an afterthought. (In the trailer, she’s limited to looking very concerned.)

“Free Fire,” an ensemble crime thriller directed by Ben Wheatley, premiered at the 2016 Toronto Film Festival and opened in April 2017, a month after “Kong.” Rather than go for a slower rollout, A24 decided to put Wheatley’s film in 1,070 theaters; opening weekend was just under $1 million, with a $1.8 million run.

This summer’s “Glass Castle” reunited Larson with her “Short Term 12” director, Destin Daniel Cretton, and seemed to present the best chance to trade on her Academy bona fides. Lionsgate was the distributor, and they previously nurtured Kristen Stewart, Jennifer Lawrence, and Shailene Woodley — albeit in YA franchises rather than the harder-to-market standalone-drama.

Marketing referred to Larson’s Oscar, but reviews ranged from modest to dismissive and business followed suit. Opening weekend August 11 was $4.7 million in 1,461 theaters. That’s nearly identical to Disney’s 2016 opening of another female-driven family-drama adaptation, “The Light Between Oceans,” which starred best supporting actress winner Alicia Vikander (“The Danish Girl”). It earned $12 million domestic total.

Larson’s win could still translate into strong results. Her directorial debut “Unicorn Store” was just added to Toronto, and she’s the lead in the upcoming Marvel film “Captain Marvel.”

"A Ghost Story"

“A Ghost Story”

Casey Affleck
Best Actor, 2017
Oscar-winning film: “Manchester By the Sea,” Amazon/Roadside Attractions ($47.7M)

Affleck followed “Manchester by the Sea” with an ultra-low budget, almost experimental drama, “A Ghost Story;” David Lowery premiered his film at Sundance just before Affleck’s Oscar win. Costarring Rooney Mara (who, with Affleck, starred in Lowery’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”), A24’s “A Ghost Story” earned excellent-to-rapturous reviews. However, it struggled to gain much traction since its July 7 release and will make about $1.5 million.

As a quirky, quasi-genre romance, it’s a difficult film to market. However, it also reinforces the idea Oscar acclaim doesn’t equate with audiences in theaters. Affleck’s next project is the HBO miniseries “Lewis and Clark;” he’ll also reteam with Lowery on “The Old Man and the Gun” for Fox Searchlight.

“The Dark Tower”


Matthew McConaughey
Best Actor, 2014
Oscar-winning film: “Dallas Buyers Club,” Focus Features ($27.3M)

Challenges facing Sony’s would-be franchise “The Dark Tower” are well documented, and have little or nothing to do with stars McConaughey and Idris Elba. However, it’s his first would-be tentpole movie since the Oscar win and certainly meant to reflect his continued box-office draw. At $51 million worldwide since its August 4 release, the film appears to be a genuine flop.

That’s all the more painful considering McConaughey’s other post-Oscar work. Gus Van Sant’s “The Sea of Trees” (A24) was a critical and commercial disaster. A Civil War drama from STX, “Free State of Jones,” barely managed to gross $21 million.

Next came “Gold,” released by The Weinstein Co. in a late-December qualifying run with a trailer that trumpets McConaughey and his Oscar win. Optimistic to the end, they went with wide release in late January, but earned $7.2 million the domestic total.

The Revenant

Of course, three examples aren’t definitive; Jennifer Lawrence and Eddie Redmayne seem to be doing just fine, thanks. Still, it could suggest Leonardo Dicaprio knew what he was doing when he took at least three years between his 2016 win for “The Revenant” and whatever his next film will be. After all, he’s got nothing to prove — and the best way to avoid the question of whether Oscars increase his value at the box office is to steer clear of it altogether.

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