Box Office: How Star Power Couldn't Save Angelina Jolie Pitt's 'By the Sea'

Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie PItt in 'By the Sea'
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"Even when you have two of the most recognized faces in the world in Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, if the project by all accounts, isn’t some kind of a masterpiece, it will likely become film fodder. Or, to put delicately, a wash," says one box office analyst.

In July 2014, Universal Pictures made headlines by announcing By the Sea, teaming Angelina Jolie Pitt and real-life husband Brad Pitt — two of the world's biggest stars — for the first time on the big screen together since Mr. & Mrs. Smith a decade ago.

But the project wasn't an obvious fit for a major Hollywood studio, despite its star billing. The moody marital drama, the third feature directed by Jolie Pitt, is a nod to the European cinema of the 1960s and 1970s that Jolie Pitt's mother, the late actress Marcheline Bertrand, adored. Translated, it's an arthouse title about a disenchanted married couple who go on vacation in a sleepy French coastal town, and begin spying on the newlyweds staying next door. But Universal wanted to keep the filmmaker-actress in the fold after she directed last year's Unbroken, and so okayed the $10 million net budget.

But even as a prestige offering, By the Sea didn't work. Over the weekend, it debuted to $95,440 from 10 theaters in eight U.S. cities for a dismal location average of $9,544, becoming the latest fall drama to find itself shipwrecked. It's tough to find comparisons for films that launched in that number of theaters: George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck posted a location average of $38,313 when it opened in 11 theaters in 2005.

Scathing reviews are likely the chief reason that By the Sea capsized.

"For arthouse films, and especially passion projects, if aggregates aren’t exemplary these days, there are just too many entertainment choices elsewhere. The prevailing thought seems to be ‘why bother?’ or even ‘wait until Redbox.’ That’s the paradox of the entertainment industry right now — so many choices at consumer’s fingertips," says box-office analyst Jeff Bock of Exhibitor Relations.

"So, even when you have two of the most recognized faces in the world in Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, if the project by all accounts, isn’t some kind a masterpiece, it will likely become film fodder. Or, to put delicately, a wash," Bock continues. 

By the Sea would have been a natural title for Focus Features, Universal's specialty division, but it went out through the main studio because Jolie Pitt had formed a bond with Universal Pictures chairman Donna Langley and Langley's team when making Unbroken, last year's World War II drama that took in $163.3 million worldwide.

"Our folks love working with her," said Universal distribution chief Nick Carpou. "Engaging on a project like this after the extraordinary success of Unbroken was a great opportunity to remain highly collaborative with her. It gave her a chance to express herself in a highly personal way, and gave us a chance to work with her on that."

Carpou wouldn't comment on why names like Jolie Pitt and Pitt didn't translate into box office success, and insists the movie has hardly run its course. Next weekend, Universal will grow By the Sea's theater count to 100 theaters in a total of 40 markets. Beyond that, any further expansion depends upon how it performs.

In selling the film, the main poster didn't feature either of the Pitts. As with the film itself, insiders say Jolie Pitt and Universal wanted the promotional materials to remain true to how the films of the era were sold. The main poster simply featured a couple of hats.

Rentrak's Paul Dergarabedian believes that By the Sea was never destined to be a huge hit, given its subject matter and tone, regardless of the celebrity status enjoyed by "Brangelina."

"Had it been Mr. & Mrs. Smith 2, clearly the results would have been far different and naturally so. I think going limited was appropriate in this case and no matter what the marketing materials looked like, the results would have likely been the same for this decidedly small scale production," Dergarabedian said.

"By the Sea is clearly a passion project for Jolie and Pitt and given the subject matter and the very limited release, it certainly was never destined to be a huge hit and I don't believe the box office performance in any way is a reflection on their collective star power, but rather a reflection of the nature of the film itself," he continued.

Universal greatly minimized its marketing spend by opening By the Sea in select theaters, versus a nationwide release. And insiders say both Jolie Pitt and Pitt took drastically reduced fees. Universal set the Nov. 13 release date in May, clearly intending for it to be an awards player, but was vague as to whether it would open nationwide or in select theaters. But the film, which debuted at the recent AFI Fest, didn't impress Oscar handicappers, who have discounted its awards prospects.

Sources add Universal has every intention of making more movies with Jolie Pitt, although their next project has yet to be announced. In the meantime, Jolie Pitt is set to direct Cambodian-set drama First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers for Netflix.

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