The scale of “The Goldfinch” opening weekend fiasco overshadowed the reality. Making it a success at the box office was always going to be a long shot for Warner Bros. The adaptation of the Donna Tartt bestseller almost landed in the lowest-20 grossing titles opening in over 2,000 theaters. Its $2.7 million gross ranks with the worst performances ever for a film of its pedigree.
But that pedigree lessened its chances of becoming a hit. With a $45-million budget, a global marketing campaign took the bottom line north of $100 million. With openings in a few countries showing little initial strength, the worldwide theatrical take could struggle to get to $25 million. With Amazon holding streaming rights and a one-third stake, returns to the studio are reduced.
This debacle is bad news for any studio executives pushing for non-franchise content. In five weeks time, Warner Bros. released three original standalones: “The Kitchen,” “Blinded By the Light,” and “The Goldfinch.” Combined, they might not reach $30 million for their domestic gross.
Meantime, thanks to other revenues the studio is in a close race for second place with Universal for 2019 studio market share, after Disney. And this month’s “It: Chapter Two” (heading to $225 million domestic) and “Joker” next month (likely well north of $250 million) show clearly what ticket buyers prefer.
Yes, execrable reviews (Metacritic score: 41) destroyed any shot of “The Goldfinch” reaching an audience. But the low initial moviegoer response suggests that even with strong reviews, interest in the film was minimal. Reaching even $100 million worldwide (returning at best half to Warner Bros.) would have been difficult.
Great American authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner have been the source of major movie hits. Pearl S. Buck, Margaret Mitchell, Herman Wouk, Allan Drury, and Edna Ferber were all acclaimed in their time as well as bestselling sources of huge movie hits. But movies made for theatrical release haven’t been the prime medium for serious contemporary literature for decades.
Published novels remain a source for movies. But these days the likelihood is low that a critically acclaimed book (including winners of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction) will wind up a theatrical movie. These projects, more and more, are heading for home viewing.
“The Goldfinch” won the Pulitzer in 2014 on top of decent sales (it ranked #4 on Amazon’s Kindle sales, behind three other popular novels that became movies, “The Fault in Our Stars,” “Gone Girl,” and “Divergent”). Of the winners of the two top prizes, only two have managed to gross over $60 million (all grosses here adjusted to current ticket prices). “Cold Mountain” (2003) hit $139 million, “The Hours” (1999) managed $62 million (both starred Nicole Kidman, who’s also in “The Goldfinch”). That’s it for the last 25 years.
The novel as the most common vehicle for narrative fiction remains established as it has been for centuries. But lengthy, serious tomes in recent years have looked to longer-form options. This is not new: “Roots,” “Shogun,” “Lonesome Dove,” all popular and acclaimed doorstoppers, became network mini-series more than 40 years ago. In recent years, top prize-winners among the few literary American novels that have been adapted — “Olive Kitteridge,” “Empire Falls” — were multiple-episode cable presentations. “Big Little Lies,” though not quite as acclaimed, scored success on HBO.
Spanning a decade in multiple locations, Dickensian 800-page “The Goldfinch” tracks the impact of a fictional terrorist Manhattan bombing in 2003 on a teenage boy turning into a young adult. Significant paring was required to wind up at 2.5-hour running time. And contemporary audiences did not accept the ellipses and cinematic language that conveyed key themes and plot developments.
We are in an era in which movies aim for major moments that convey what a movie is about (whether Marvel epics or Quentin Tarantino films), that make an impact both on-screen and in ads and trailers. Novels by their nature are more introspective, particularly ones with serious aspirations like “The Goldfinch.” The impressive domestic sales of the novel are estimated at under two million. If all readers bought tickets the result would be a $20 million total. So to work as a movie, something more was needed.
Look at the trajectory of multi-medium high-end material producer Scott Rudin (“No Country for Old Men,” “The Hours”). He used to chase literary properties like “The Goldfinch.” Now, he focuses more on theater. Producer Nina Jacobson (the “Hunger Games” franchise and Warners’ novel-to-movie “Crazy Rich Asians,”) was branching into Rudin territory by landing the rights to this sought-after novel.
The clearest comparable movie is Rudin’s $45-million production of Stephen Daldry’s “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” (December 2011, Warners) about the after-effects of a New York terror attack on a child. Despite its bad critical reception (46 on Metacritic; “The Goldfinch” is at 41) the year-end limited release starring Sandra Bullock and Tom Hanks managed a Best Picture nomination. The box-office flop ended up with $36 million (adjusted), $60 million worldwide.
“The Goldfinch” stars Nicole Kidman, as good as any film actor currently working, as well as rising star Ansel Elgort (“Baby Driver”). Kidman is the biggest name, though her role, as often is the case these days, is supporting. She hasn’t boosted recent serious dramas like “Destroyer” or “Boy Erased.” at the box office. Director John Crowley (“Intermission,” “Boy A”) enjoyed his biggest success with “Brooklyn” (about $40 million domestic), based on the acclaimed Irish novel. Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan nabbed the most attention. In any event, Crowley’s involvement gave the movie no discernible advantage with critics or audiences.
The mid-September opening suggests Warners had little expectation of “The Goldfinch” as an Oscar player. Even though this year’s awards calendar has moved several weeks earlier, no other likely contender moved this early (the original date was mid-October). It does make sense that this opened right after the Toronto premiere, and it was logical to go on a less competitive date. (Warner Bros. did not respond to a request for comment.) The studio was privy to research screening data, which was reinforced by the poor critical response. Further evidence of audience resistance was revealed by its mediocre B Cinemascore (“Extremely Close” received an A-), with a significant percent of ticket buyers likely fans of the book.
Finally, all signs pointed to this movie being dead on arrival.