Generally speaking, we as a viewing audience are starved for great teen comedies, especially ones with teen girls front and center. The more radical among us might even go so far to say there hasn’t been a truly transcendent one since Mean Girls (no disrespect to Easy A, The Edge of Seventeen, and Lady Bird, all very good movies). So when Booksmart, directed by Olivia Wilde and starring Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever, came along with its fantastic reviews and very likable team to fill this void, it did seem that the movie had a chance to make a splash at the box office.
In the movie, Feldstein and Dever play two goody-two-shoes high schoolers who realize that for their entire lives they’ve put way too much pressure on themselves to be straight-A students, especially when the schhol’s slackers were able to have fun and still get into top-tier colleges. Booksmart passes nearly every test and checks almost every box of the great teen comedy canon. It’s refreshing and funny, and with a nuanced friendship between two young women at the forefront, unexpected romantic entanglements, and one increasingly dramatic party set piece, it has just about everything you would want to see in a classic high school comedy for today (and with a rating of 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, the critics agree).
So, why, then, did the movie fail so miserably at the box office during its opening weekend?
Over Memorial Day weekend, Booksmart only earned about $6.9 million during its wide release, putting it well behind the likes of Aladdin, at $90 million, and John Wick 3, at $40 million (it finished sixth, behind Brightburn). The numbers caused much consternation among fans on Twitter, with even Wilde tweeting her concern at her movie’s take compared to the blockbusters it was up against. The film was a hit with South by Southwest audiences in March, and it seemed to find the right demo to target with ads on social media, but its distributor, United Artists Releasing (a joint distribution venture formed by Annapurna Pictures and MGM), gave Booksmart a nationwide release—a move that even its director acknowledged was risky—rather than a slow rollout over the first few weeks of summer. As a result, many are pointing fingers at Annapurna, which solely produced the film but did not market it, and United Artists Releasing, citing its supposedly faulty marketing and release plan as the reason Booksmart underperformed. (It should also be noted that Booksmart is the first film to be distributed by UAR for Annapurna.)
Last year, Annapurna distributed a handful of critically acclaimed films, but only Sorry to Bother You turned a profit. If Beale Street Could Talk and Vice actually lost the company millions of dollars, per IndieWire. Not even Wilde’s plea to get audiences to buy tickets the opening weekend could make a real difference, and on the same day she asked her 1.7 million followers to go see Booksmart, the Russo brothers urged Marvel fans to go see Avengers: Endgame, a movie which broke records by grossing a billion dollars in one weekend and arguably doesn’t need any assistance in the box-office department, for the fourth time. For what it’s worth, many people also tried to see Booksmart, only to discover that the film was not playing in nearly enough local theaters.
Some people speculate that Feldstein and Dever just weren’t big enough names to bring in the audiences in droves. Take a movie like Disney’s live-action Aladdin remake, for example. Two relatively unknown actors lead the cast, but Disney got Will Smith, a household name for the last 30 years and one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood, to play the genie, and used his star power to bolster the success of the film. When the first teaser dropped, all people could talk about was Will Smith’s blue facial features and how silly it made him look, but still, Aladdin opened big over Memorial Day weekend. Whether or not Aladdin was actually good is still up for debate, but the movie’s $207 million worldwide in one weekend is inarguably successful.
So is there a formula for an indie comedy to become a big hit? When Juno, a particularly offbeat coming of age tale written by a relatively unknown (at the time) Diablo Cody and starring Ellen Page (another relatively unknown performer at that time), was released in 2007, the critical reception was positive, but the film only grossed just over $420,000 in its first weekend. It also played in only seven theaters between Los Angeles and New York. When Fox Searchlight gave it a wide release after drumming up enough intrigue during that limited run, Juno became the first film to make the distributor more than $100 million at the box office, becoming an instant cult classic with merch at Urban Outfitters (remember the hamburger phone craze?). Clearly, Fox Searchlight learned from the 2004 rollout of Napoleon Dynamite, another offbeat indie with a limited opening weekend that ended up grossing $44 million and becoming an oft-referenced cult comedy.
While Wilde’s name is certainly nothing to sneeze at (and nor are the names of supporting cast members Lisa Kudrow, Jessica Williams, and Jason Sudeikis), thanks to the perceived lack of star power attached to the project, the distributor might have done better by opting for a slow rollout—release the film in major coastal cities first for a couple of weeks, then move on to the midsized urban centers, then hit the suburbs—to build intrigue and a fan base for a movie that likely will appeal to a large subset of young adults and teens. And just because a movie does well at the box office during its first few weekends doesn’t mean it has staying power. Booksmart might have failed the test its opening weekend, but it can still win as a cult classic in the future.