Hollywood is bonkers for metrics — there’s Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic rankings, and the classic CinemaScore, which provides a handy letter grade at the end of opening weekend for each big-screen release. It’s as easily digested as an elementary school report card, but CinemaScores don’t measure quality. They measure “movie appeal,” which boils down to one major question: Does the movie I saw reflect the movie advertised?
Movies that tend to do well on the CinemaScore curve — recent “A” movies include “Girls Trip,” “Leap!,” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” — are typically more mainstream: straightforward marketing for straightforward movies. There’s nothing wrong with marketing films to their audience. However, the system also dings films for going in unusual directions with their marketing, which is further proof that metrics may or may not correlate with quality.
The latest victim of CinemaScore metrics is Darren Aronofsky’s ambitious, divisive, and utterly bonkers “mother!” The Paramount film received an “F” CinemaScore, joining titles like “Bug,” “Solaris,” and “The Wicker Man.” (Not every “F” film is a misunderstood masterpiece; titles like “Darkness” and “Disaster Movie” are also in its ranks.)
Aronofsky reportedly had his hands on every facet of the film’s full-force marketing campaign, from TV spots that played up haunted-house themes to posters seemingly filled with clues. While beloved on the festival circuit, “mother!” is an allegorical tale that divided audiences as to what it really means. So it’s hardly surprising that mainstream audiences thought they were in for some sort of creepy psychological thriller, bolstered by the star power of Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem. That’s what Paramount sold them.
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That mainstream audiences would reject the film isn’t very surprising, but an “F” grade of any stripe sounds like failing. And while “mother!” is many things, a failure it isn’t.
Not only is it Aronofsky’s most ambitious, audacious feature yet, “mother!” is also the most ambitious, audacious feature that a studio has put out in years. Paramount went all in, taking it to Venice and Toronto, blasting marketing spots of every stripe, and bowing the film in a wide release that put it in over 2,300 theaters on its opening weekend. It’s the kind of auteur-driven cinema that studios don’t make any more, the sort of film that Netflix or Amazon would be hailed for making and releasing.
Instead, it’s saddled with an “F” and a dismal opening weekend ($7.5 million) that diminish its creative value and the risk that went into making it. Said Paramount worldwide president of marketing and distribution Megan Colligan: “This movie is very audacious and brave. You are talking about a director at the top of his game, and an actress at the top of her game. They made a movie that was intended to be bold.”
She added, “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.”
That’s the crux of the CinemaScore problem: Original movies upend expectations, which is hell when they’re graded by a system based on marketing.
It’s heartening to see Paramount support “mother!” and Aronofsky in a landscape that gives lip service to creativity but rewards paint-by-numbers tentpoles. However, Colligan also voices the critical misstep in the studio’s marketing: “It’s okay if some people don’t like it.”
Knowing a film isn’t for everyone is intellectually honest, and “mother!” is not a film for everyone. However, Paramount released it to the masses. A24 pulled something similar when they opted for a wide release of Sundance darling “The Witch”: Marketing teased a creepy horror film set in colonial times, while the story was a psychological-leaning drama that studiously avoided most horror tropes. It received a “C-” CinemaScore, indicating that audiences felt tricked. (“The Witch” grossed about $25 million; based on its opening weekend, “mother!” might be expected to do about the same.)
Audiences wants something original, something bold, and that’s never meant something that can play to a wide audience, or that can even be touted by one kind of marketing campaign. If you want something great, you often have to avoid the crowd. And the grades.
“mother!” is now playing in theaters nationwide.