Olivia Wilde’s high school comedy “Booksmart” will gross about $11 million in its first week in 2,505 theaters. That’s good enough for sixth place, which inspired a bevy of commenters to rail about what its failure reveals about the fate of review-driven, quality, small-scale original movies in today’s market.
Fact is, not every film lives or dies by initial results. Nor are the standards by which we judge “Hellboy” the same as “Booksmart.” Initial gross is important, but then there’s a movie like “Green Book.” It opened before Thanksgiving in multiple cities to mediocre results, but with enough positive response to pay off over months (along with expensive marketing) that culminated with its Best Picture win and worldwide success. Or last year’s “Book Club,” which opened wide under $15 million to nearly a 5X multiple.
“Booksmart” opened on a holiday weekend, surfing upbeat media coverage from its SXSW launch. To build word of mouth, producer Annapurna (partnered with United Artists) held public screenings the previous Friday at about 400 major-chain theaters, as well as Thursday pre-openings, grossing $8.7 million through the Monday holiday.
Compared to a typical studio wide release, this is not impressive. It also misses the point. Here’s why “Booksmart” might still turn out to be a hit after all.
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1. Expect “Booksmart” to reach around $25 million
A $4.5 million second weekend, a 35% drop, would be good; $5 million would be excellent. But even $4 million would get the second-week total to $15 million. That makes $20 million domestic a near certainty. Even though the movie will lose theaters, the top-grossing outlets will provide the bulk of the interest as the run continues. A typical studio film with a second weekend like this would soon disappear, but this should have longer legs based on strong word of mouth. So $25 million looks like a plausible final result.
2. “Mud” and “The Disaster Artist” grossed under $25 million
Different release patterns have different economics. But if “Booksmart” passes $25 million, it will have sold more tickets than “On the Basis of Sex” ($25 million), “Mud” ($23 million), “Snowden” ($22 million), “The Disaster Artist” ($22), or “The Phantom Thread” ($22 million) (all numbers are adjusted to current ticket prices). It would be far ahead of recent Oscar winners like “Still Alice” ($20 million), “Call Me By Your Name” ($18 million), “Room” ($16 million), “If Beale Street Could Talk” ($15 million), and “Whiplash” ($14 million).
We don’t know all the economics on these films, but fewer people saw them in theaters than will patronize “Booksmart.” And most are regarded as successes.
If “Booksmart” managed to reach a high-end $30 million, among the films it would better are “Moonlight” ($28 million), “Ex Machina” ($27 million”), and “Boyhood” ($27 million). One can question their profitability (especially with heavy Oscar spending), but they weren’t castigated as failures.
3. Fewer platform releases perform
Armchair critics may cluck their tongues over United Artists/Annapurna’s decision to go wide, but that discards an inconvenient truth: The initial-platform model no longer works well, particularly outside awards season. Even if didn’t sell one more ticket, “Booksmart” would already be ahead of similar films.
It’s increasingly rare to see crossover hits that started as platform or limited releases. In 2014, Wes Anderson got to $65 million with “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” That same year, Jon Favreau’s “Chef” reached $34 million. “The Woman in Gold” in 2015 managed $35 million, “Ex Machina” $27 million, and in 2016, “Eye in the Sky” got to $19 million.
Since then, no live-action narrative specialized release has passed $10 million in the first five months of the year. (Amazon pickup “The Big Sick” in June 2017 did hit $17 million.) In 2018, “The Death of Stalin” was tops at $8 million.
On the specialized front this year, “Hotel Mumbai” will reach around $10 million. Among non-documentaries, only two others reached $5 million: “Gloria Bell” and “The Mustang.”
4. Wide releases offer fringe benefits that limited doesn’t
The higher awareness that comes from more theaters also creates real financial benefits, starting with ancillary revenues from VOD (which has a higher return than theatrical play). In France “Booksmart” is already available on Netflix, where it will play in most of the world, and these deals frequently are based on domestic exposure.
Also, a platform release isn’t always a low-budget move. Adding runs week by week often means spreading out the cost, often not much lower, and it’s becoming increasingly common for would-be specialized titles to take their chances on the open road. The broad-appeal Dwayne Johnson wrestling comedy “Fighting With My Family” had a one-week platform before going wide and ended up at $23 million. (It had a wider release than “Booksmart.”)
Other releases from specialized companies that opened wide didn’t fare as well: “Greta” with Chloe Moretz and Isabelle Huppert just passed $10 million. “Tolkien” won’t reach $5 million.
5. It’s not “Lady Bird,” but it’s a successful teen comedy aimed at women
Greta Gerwig’s film, boosted by awards campaigning that sustained grosses of $1 million or more every weekend for three months, ended up at $49 million. That came with accompanying marketing and other boosts (including Christmas play) that “Booksmart” won’t have. What would “Lady Bird” have done with a May release? Likely closer to $30 million.
Last year, A24 released “Eighth Grade,” limited at first, then with staggered expansion, which hit just under $14 million. STX’s “Edge of Seventeen,” in slightly fewer than 2,000 theaters, opened to under $5 million, got a Thanksgiving boost in the middle of its first 10 days, and totaled $15 million.
6. It’s not major studio release
This is where things get murky. We don’t know the “Booksmart” budget; obviously, it’s a happier story if it was $5 million rather than $15 million. But while Annapurna is a private company with deep pockets, it doesn’t bear the massive overhead of a major studio. So while a wide release means more marketing expenses, it’s far less than a studio picture.
7. The second weekend matters
“Booksmart” is a work in progress. On the plus side: Social media support could make a difference; the film scored strong reviews and signs of audience interest. Less so: It also has a middling B+ Cinemascore (although comedies often struggle to find their niche). And in a theatrically challenged market, audiences often avoid films defined as “losers.”
The next player in the platform-vs-wide debate will be “Late Night” (June 7, Amazon). Originally set for a similar “Booksmart”-level wide release after a great response at Sundance, the Mindy Kaling-written comedy co-starring Emma Thompson will now go wide the week after an initial New York/Los Angeles platform. Acquired for $13 million, it also has review support but boasts well-known actors and an accessible storyline. Eyes will be on this to see how it performs theatrically.