Last weekend’s box office was dominated by Disney’s “Aladdin” remake, “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum,” and “Avengers: Endgame.” All three have the support of a major studio, at least one massive A-list star, and a popular franchise to back them up. And thus, all three have done very well financially. But even with those three leading the domestic top 10, the conversation surrounding the Memorial Day Weekend box office seems to revolve around indie comedy “Booksmart.” More specifically, why the film seemed to “fail” and has now sparked a cultural debate amongst film fans.
Over the extended four-day holiday weekend, “Booksmart” earned a reported $8.7 million at the domestic box office. Not bad for a film with a $6 million budget, right? Well, if you look at the reaction on Twitter and other social media channels, “Booksmart” was a failure of epic proportions. And what has since transpired has put the teen comedy at the center of numerous debates about the future of the film industry, as well as diversity and inclusivity. Honestly, it’s a mess. A mess that is worth breaking down a little.
There are two main conversations happening about “Booksmart” and the box office at this moment. First, people are trying to diagnose how a film with a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes and a ‘B+’ CinemaScore failed to attract general audiences. And then, there’s a second debate about why you should or shouldn’t support the film, with celebrities and fans debating about whether “Booksmart” is a film that should be compared to “Black Panther” and other cultural milestone films.
It’s much easier to tackle the first problem. You see, it shouldn’t be any surprise that “Booksmart” only earned $8.7 million at the box office. Taking the specifics out of the equation, you’re looking at a low-budget film with no big stars and two young female leads, a brand-new female filmmaker, an R rating, and no major studio support. Oh yeah, and you’re going up against some record-breaking competition. Sorry folks, that’s a tough uphill box office battle for any film.
When you see a film like this enter theatrical distribution, most studios will start with a limited release and build buzz from there. Sure, that can be as little as 4 theaters, but there are other films that built buzz off of more ambitious releases in 500 to 1000 locations. What that does is allow for word-of-mouth to carry a film, without the expectations that a massive nationwide release brings with it. So, when “Booksmart” opens in over 2,500 theaters, a number normally reserved for films with 10 times the budget, the teen comedy can only be compared to other major releases with bigger stars, bigger budgets, and bigger marketing campaigns.
Public perception surrounding a film that only makes $8.7 million in 2,500 theaters of dictates that the film is a failure. However, in the case of “Booksmart,” that number is actually pretty good, given the box office disadvantages I listed above.
That being said, if “Booksmart” started in limited release, similar to how 2017’s “Lady Bird” (a female-led R-rated teen film with a first-time female director and incredible reviews) opened, the discussion would likely be very different. “Lady Bird” never released in more than 1,557 locations (starting with only 4 locations and building to 1,557 in its sixth weekend) and its biggest weekend gross was only $4.29 million. But do people think of “Lady Bird” as a monumental disaster? Absolutely not. In fact, A24 touts the film as one of its biggest successes at the box office.
Basically, when looking at the “Booksmart” box office, it’s all about perspective. Unfortunately, this perspective was altered because director Olivia Wilde has a ton of famous friends and fans, and she decided to activate them on social media to promote her film, unfairly pitting her indie comedy against “Aladdin,” ‘John Wick,’ and ‘Avengers,’ in a battle she was sure to lose.
She tweeted, “Anyone out there saving @Booksmart for another day, consider making that day TODAY. 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.”
Of course, Wilde did what she had to do. No one wants their film to suffer a bad box office weekend, so I can’t fault her for trying to get the word out. However, this social media campaign ignited the current debate about “Booksmart,” which revolves around the diversity/inclusivity of the film and how Wilde’s effort to mobilize fans has backfired.
Roxanne Gay, a prominent feminist author with a major following, tweeted about this “Booksmart” social media campaign, highlighting what seems to be the crux of this backlash. “I’ve seen more than a few tweets basically pressuring people to see Booksmart or else more movies like it won’t get made,” tweeted Gay. “This strategy never works and it is always deployed for movies that cater to anyone but straight white men.”
She continued, “It’s aggravating. Going to a movie doesn’t solve systemic issues in Hollywood. This idea that we are supposed to be so grateful for representation that we are in the wrong if we don’t drop everything to offer or support is… a mess.”
This is in response to folks like Ryan Reynolds, Taylor Swift, Mindy Kaling, Seth McFarlane, Natalie Portman, and many, many others urging everyone to go see “Booksmart” in an effort to somehow save indie film and support inclusivity in filmmaking. As noble as that cause may be, the intentions seem to have upset many people who argued that comparing “Booksmart” to “Crazy Rich Asians” or “Black Panther” is disingenuous and wrong.
Joanna Robinson, a writer with Vanity Fair, commented on this narrative, but defends the groundswell of support for “Booksmart.” She tweeted, “The notion that rooting for #Booksmart is a basic bitch white girl thing to do when one lead is not size zero and the other is pushing the envelope on queer representation is, frankly, an outrageous warp of the narrative. OUTRAGEOUS. We can all support each other get it together.”
As you can see, the discussion about this incredibly well-made, funny teen comedy about two girls graduating high school has become the foundation of a cultural debate about racism, sexism, and bigotry in film and society, as a whole. A film that already was set up by its distributor for box office disappointment is now getting bludgeoned by people on social media as another example of what’s wrong with the industry. That isn’t to say that folks like Gay are wrong. In fact, she makes a solid point.
Sadly, all this does is further doom a great film that deserves to be seen. Do you have to see it? No, of course not. Are you a terrible person if you don’t rush out to see it? Absolutely not. Will “Booksmart” save the world? Though I’d like to believe that a film that features two teenage girls talking about masturbating with a stuffed animal is enough to cure all our woes, I’m going to say no. But it is a good fucking film. And as fans of this medium, you should at least check it out. At your earliest convenience, of course.
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. ????
— olivia wilde (@oliviawilde) May 27, 2019
Anyone out there saving @Booksmart for another day, consider making that day TODAY. 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. ????❤️????
— olivia wilde (@oliviawilde) May 25, 2019
I’ve seen more than a few tweets basically pressuring people to see Booksmart or else more movies like it won’t get made. This strategy never works and it is always deployed for movies that cater to anyone but straight white men.
— roxane gay (@rgay) May 27, 2019
The notion that rooting for #Booksmart is a basic bitch white girl thing to do when one lead is not size zero and the other is pushing the envelope on queer representation is, frankly, an outrageous warp of the narrative. OUTRAGEOUS. We can all support each other get it together.
— Joanna Robinson (@jowrotethis) May 28, 2019