After all that anticipation and mystery, mother! landed in theaters this weekend with a thud. Darren Aronofsky’s Jennifer Lawrence-starring psychological thrill ride took in just $7.5 million in ticket sales, but perhaps the real headline of the weekend was the big fat “F” it got from audience polling service CinemaScore. So rare is the dreaded grade, that mother! was only the unlucky 13th movie to receive it since the mid-90s.
That’s quite a dissonance with the film’s relatively warm critical reception. Critics who saw the film on the festival circuit praised the film with early raves even as they conceded it was unconventional, but the buzz died down a little bit when more writers of the non-world traveling type got a crack at the film. Still, it has a relatively solid 66 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
So why the failing grade with audiences?
First, you should know a little bit more about CinemaScore. It asks audiences on opening night (and only on opening night) to grade their enjoyment of a film on a school-grade scale. The idea is that opening night audiences are more likely to be the film’s target demographic, and most eager to see the film in the first place. What CinemaScore is trying to suss out here is not necessarily the final word on a film’s quality, but rather how word-of-mouth reception can affect the film’s ultimate box office performance. As it turns out they’re really pretty good at that, though maybe not at predicting a film’s ultimate reputation.
Because they target opening night audiences, scores in the A range are pretty common. So much so that once you get to a B or below, it starts to give box office prognosticators pause.
The notable genre exception, however, is with horror movies. Particularly the kind of horror movies that tend to torture their audiences as much as their characters. The Blair Witch Project‘s pioneering scare tactics are still used today. Saw, of course, kicked off a gorefest franchise that just won’t end. Both ended up being huge hits. Both received disappointing C- CinemaScores. The CinemaScore curve on horror flicks is typically lower.
In fact, looking at the 12 other recent films to receive the F, seven are horror films (notable: a few of them use a “stuck in a house” theme found in mother!).
Many of the other “F” films tend to be team-ups between A-list stars with auteur directors at their more uncompromising and artsiest (and, maybe, preachiest in theme).
The Brad Pitt-starring Killing Them Softly was relatively well-regarded by critics. The Andrew Dominik-directed film has a 74 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Still, the darkly comedic and violent film got an “F” from audiences. Same for George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Solaris.
Robert Altman’s 2000 film Dr. T & the Women also received an F, and that still leaves some people scratching their heads. Perhaps it was because it starred then-romcom royalty Richard Gere and Helen Hunt. It was decidedly not a mainstream romcom, and was more, well, a Robert Altman film.
The through line here is films that would otherwise be hard to market to wider audiences in a straightforward manner, so the studios just play up the star power. Audiences who come to see their favs then may not be totally prepared for what they were getting themselves into. We could very much imagine that’s what happened with Jennifer Lawrence’s fanbase.
Indeed, with mother! you have both factors present. So perhaps the F grade comes as no surprise.
Still, everyone should walk away with their reputations intact. With just a $30 million budget, the film could wind up profitable at the end of the day. The possibility of cult favorite status is still very much in the cards. CinemaScore isn’t particularly great at predicting the lasting legacy of arthouse flicks. The Royal Tennenbaums, a defining indie film of its decade, walked away with a terrible C-.
Perhaps the biggest implications of the film’s F score and its disappointing opening weekend might be on its Oscars hopes. Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer may stick around in the conversation for the supporting acting categories, but otherwise mother!‘s Oscar chances seemed to have sunk.
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