Box Office Bust: Clint Eastwood's 'Richard Jewell' Derailed by Apathy, Not Controversy

Richard Jewell - Publicity Still 4 - H 2019
Warner Bros. Pictures

The biographical drama marks a near-worst career opening for the prolific director.

Richard Jewell definitely did not make Clint Eastwood's day.

Over the weekend, the biographical drama launched nationwide to an estimated $4.7 million in a near-career worst showing for the prolific director. His only movie to have opened lower was Bronco Billy ($3.7 million) nearly 40 years ago, and that's not adjusted for inflation, according to Comscore. On Sunday, Warner Bros. put the film's tally at an estimated $5 million, but lowered it on Monday morning.

Year after year, Eastwood's loyal fans, many of them older, have shown up in solid enough numbers even on opening weekend. But not this time, as Hollywood — and particularly Warner Bros. — struggles to stop midrange, adult dramas from getting iced. Nor did an 11th-hour controversy seem to hurt or help the pic.

In recent days, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution objected strenuously to the pic's portrayal of the late journalist Kathy Scruggs, who in the film seduces an FBI agent and is implied to have sex with him in order to get information about the real-life security guard who was investigated for the 1996 bombing at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta after saving numerous lives.

Paul Walter Hauser stars in the titular role in Richard Jewell opposite Olivia Wilde, who plays Scruggs, and Jon Hamm.

Last Thursday, Wilde even weighed in on Twitter. "Contrary to a swath of recent headlines, I do not believe that Kathy 'traded sex for tips.' Nothing in my research suggested she did so, and it was never my intention to suggest she had. That would be an appalling and misogynistic dismissal of the difficult work she did," wrote the actress, adding she had no control over the filmmakers.

"Usually controversy, whether good or bad, helps. It didn't seem to here," says one executive close to the movie.

Atlanta moviegoers certainly didn’t boycott the film. The Southern city over-indexed by 60 percent, according to those with access to grosses. That keen interest didn’t extend to many other cities, outside of Phoenix (55 percent) and Dallas (24 percent). Warners estimates that 40 percent or more of ticket buyers were 50 and older.

"Eastwood's core fan base is vast, but his movies generally do better when he is both the director and star. Short of that, his better-performing films have boasted a major star like Leonardo DiCapro or Tom Hanks," says Paul Dergarabedian of Comscore.

The Mule — both directed by and starring Eastwood — debuted on the same weekend last year to $17.5 million domestically. Sully, headlining Tom Hanks, started off with $35 million in September in 2016, while Bradley Cooper starrer American Sniper took in a huge $89.3 million when expanding nationwide in mid-January 2015 after a limited Christmas release.

Yet even terrorist drama The 12:17 to Paris, which didn't star Eastwood, debuted to $12.6 million in February 2018 despite not boasting any A-list actors.

"I think there's limited appeal," says analyst Eric Handler of MKM Partners.

Richard Jewell is another bruising blow for Warners, which has suffered a series of misses when it comes to midrange titles. Last month, The Good Liar opened to $5.6 million, preceded by $3.5 million for fellow fall release Motherless Brooklyn and $2.7 million for The Goldfinch. August was also bleak, between Blinded by the Light ($4.3 million) and The Kitchen ($5.5 million).

At the same time, the studio's fall tentpole Joker — which was engulfed in controversy leading up to its release — zoomed past $1 billion at the global box office, while It: Chapter scared up $472.1 million.

Warners didn't comment on Richard Jewell's opening, but studio insiders say the low turnout points to the competition posed by streaming services, as well as holiday parties and preparations.

Fox was originally set to make and release Richard Jewell, but Warners — Eastwood's longtime home base — picked up the project in turnaround following the Fox-Disney merger.

Richard Jewell could still prove to be a diamond in the rough if adult moviegoers turn out throughout the holidays, although recovery will be difficult for the $40 million-plus film, considering it had been tracking to open in the $10 million range.

"It may still benefit from the ongoing discussion about some of its more controversial aspects — and ironically its box office performance — since the movie has actually enjoyed solid reviews and strong audience scores from fans who attended the film," says Dergarabedian, noting Richard Jewell's A CinemaScore.

Dec. 16, 8:05 a.m. Updated with revised opening gross for Richard Jewell.