Box Office: 'Booksmart' Gambles With Wide Release and Stumbles

Annapurna Pictures
'Booksmart'

"Everyone agrees it's a good movie," says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at ComScore, but strong word-of-mouth didn't translate to box office breakout.

On Saturday, May 25, as the Memorial Day holiday weekend was getting into full swing, Olivia Wilde entreated audiences to buy tickets for her new movie Booksmart, writing on Twitter, "We are getting creamed by the big dogs out there and need your support."

The R-rated, high school-set comedy was opening opposite Disney's latest live-action adaptation, Aladdin, and was up against studio holdovers John Wick 3 (Lionsgate), Detective Pikachu (Warner Bros.) and Avengers: Endgame (Disney/Marvel).

Two days later, Booksmart had earned $8.7 million over the four-day weekend across 2,505 theaters and Wilde returned to Twitter to note: "A wide release for a small film is def a major gamble. I’m lucky my first movie is in any theater at all!"

But the film — which boasted a 97 percent fresh rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes — underperformed in its launch frame for a wide release.

Annapurna, which released the movie via its recently formed distribution banner, United Artists, had decided against a platform release. Instead, it ran a digital-heavy marketing campaign opposite a massive studio tentpole in a counterprogramming effort. But "[Aladdin's audience] was right in Booksmart's wheelhouse," notes Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice Media. 

The Guy Ritchie-directed movie musical earned a massive $112.7 million over the holiday, playing to a majority-female audience (60 percent), with 51 percent of moviegoers under 25 years old. Booksmart's audience was 61 percent female and 74 percent fell between the ages of 18 to 34.

Annapurna's marketing push for Booksmart did attract the young, female audience it was after. It just so happened that the blockbuster it was counterprogrammed against attracted a similar viewership. 

Greta Gerwig's 2017 film Lady Bird, another R-rated, female-fronted comedy, opened in four theaters, with a massive $91,109 screen average that generated word-of-mouth buzz that launched it into a run that — even at its height — only saw the movie in 1,557 theaters. Alternatively, 2016's female-fronted, R-rated offering high school comedy Edge of Seventeen was released wide by STX in 1,945 theaters and bowed to a disappointing $4.5 million. 

Still, both Lady Bird and Edge of Seventeen were released in the fall. While Booksmart could have been held for a fall release, it was coming off of a strong premiere at SXSW, where the film received unanimous praise from critics, and left Austin with a rare 99 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Annapurna did not want to waste that word-of-mouth, and sought to compound the festival praise with audience preview screenings the weekend before its release. With both, Booksmart had already generated the buzz that a platform release is meant to build.

"Everyone agrees it's a good movie," says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at ComScore. "But if you go out there into the arena that is the early summer marketplace, it is no easy feat to keep your head above water, and Booksmart is not alone."

In an already packed summer box office, which unofficially kicked off with Avengers: Endgame, industry experts and analysts note that smaller and mid-budgeted films' second weekends, as opposed to opening bows, are looking like the true indicators of projected success.

And while fellow well-reviewed, R-rated, early summer comedy Long Shot did not find major momentum after its debut — earning $6.2 million and dropping 35 percent in its second weekend — it still remains to be seen how Booksmart will hold.

"If it holds really well from its holiday opening that's what will give theaters the incentive to hold on to it and let that word spread," says Robbins. "Because people are talking about the movie, clearly."