‘Booksmart’ Box Office Struggle Divides Industry Over Annapurna’s Marketing and Release Strategy

Olivia Wilde’s critically acclaimed feature directorial debut “Booksmart” dominated social media buzz over Memorial Day after it struggled at the box office with a four-day opening below $9 million. While its gross more or less fell in line with pre-release tracking, many critics and fans expected the rave reviews to result in a box office hit that broke into the double digits in its much-anticipated debut. Wilde saw the writing on the wall herself after the film’s relatively quiet $2.5 million opening day and took to Twitter to encourage people not to wait on seeing “Booksmart.”

“Anyone out there saving ‘Booksmart’ for another day, consider making that day TODAY,” Wilde wrote to her 1.7 million followers. “We are getting creamed by the big dogs out there and need your support. Don’t give studios an excuse not to green-light movies made by and about women.”

Wilde’s post proved controversial, as many took issue with the fact the filmmaker was seemingly creating a competition between her female-led comedy and “big dogs” like Disney’s live-action “Aladdin” remake, which also happens to showcase an inclusive cast. As Black List founder Franklin Leonard pointed out, “You’re going to have a hard time convincing me not to be happy about another big budget studio film starring people of color overperforming expectations, domestically and especially abroad.”

Others in the industry were quick to blame producer and distributor Annapurna for not doing enough to support the movie after it world premiered to acclaim at the SXSW Film Festival in March. Annapurna has struggled since launching its distribution arm with Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit” in 2017. Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You” was the only Annapurna movie that turned a profit at the box office in 2018, with titles such as “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “Vice” losing the company up to $8 million and $15 million, respectively. Annapurna is struggling to market its movies, and “Booksmart” appeared to be no exception. As /Film managing editor Jacob Hall called out, “‘Booksmart’ could’ve been a $100 million grosser if Annapurna knew a damn thing about movie marketing.”

Accusing Annapurna of not marketing “Booksmart” effectively was met with its own level of backlash, primarily from indie filmmakers who took to social media to say they would have been thrilled to have the kind of marketing push “Booksmart” did on their own smaller titles. Annapurna gave “Booksmart” a big marketing push on social media and Wilde and co-stars Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever appeared in several television interviews and magazine profiles.

“Jinn” director Nilla Mumin wrote on Twitter, “I wish my film would’ve got half the marketing and attention as ‘Booksmart.’ I saw ads for this film everywhere.” Mumin’s indie movie got picked up by Netflix and dropped on the streaming platform with barely any marketing. Filmmaker Julia Hart agreed, writing she’d kill for the marketing push “Booksmart” received. Hart’s “Fast Color” opened in April from Lionsgate with minimal marketing and failed to crack $1 million at the box office.

As IndieWire’s awards editor Anne Thompson pointed out, Annapurna’s marketing wasn’t as much of an issue as the studio’s decision to open the movie in theaters nationwide. Even with critical raves, “Booksmart” was always going to be a tough nationwide sell since it does not have known stars or a trailer that appealed to the masses. “If there’s no big star and you can’t find a commercial trailer then you book theaters for a slow rollout to build word of mouth,” Thompson wrote on Twitter. “This is distribution 101.”

Wilde reacted to the criticism against Annapurna in an additional Twitter post that read: “A wide release for a small film is def a major gamble. I’m lucky my first movie is in any theater at all! Also proud a movie like this can be seen by the entire country at once. We made ‘Booksmart’ for everyone.”

All eyes will now be watching “Booksmart” closely to see if word of mouth exists and will help the beloved comedy have staying power at the box office. The movie is now playing in theaters nationwide.

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