If you passed within hailing distance of Twitter over the holiday weekend, you might have heard a collective sigh from fans of smart, female-focused comedies as Booksmart sputtered to a sixth-place box-office finish. The movie’s $6.9 million weekend was a dismal haul for a movie that opened on more than 2,500 screens and a gutting disappointment for critics, who’ve been raving about the movie since its debut at South by Southwest in March, and for anyone who’d been hoping that the success of a movie created by and starring women might blaze a trail for others to follow.
The movie to which Booksmart has most frequently been compared, including in Slate’s own review, is Superbad, which opened on nearly 3,000 screens in 2007 and ended up making more than $120 million domestic. But while measuring one comedy about two nerdy high-schoolers having one raucous night at the end of the school year against another seems like an apples-to-apples comparison (and a natural one when one of the two stars of Booksmart, Beanie Feldstein, is the younger sister of Superbad co-star Jonah Hill), there are vast differences between them, more consideration of which might have set expectations for Booksmart somewhere closer to reality—and, consequently, made it seem like a lot less of a failure.
For one thing, Superbad followed only a few months after the $200 million-plus success of Knocked Up and was successfully sold as an extension of the Judd Apatow–Seth Rogen brand. (Apatow directed Knocked Up and produced Superbad, and Rogen starred in one and co-wrote the other, and Superbad co-star Jonah Hill had a small but memorable role in Knocked Up.) Superbad was released in the dog days of August, not on Memorial Day weekend against a phalanx of major-studio juggernauts—in a time before Netflix had trained an entire generation of teenagers to seek out content about themselves via streaming instead of in movie theaters. Booksmart is also an indie, while Superbad was a midbudget studio film. Finally, not to overlook the obvious, Superbad is about boys, and Booksmart is about girls. The movie industry’s conventional wisdom has been for years that women will see movies about men, but men won’t see movies about women, and in this case that seems to have been borne out to a degree: 61 percent of the film’s opening weekend audience was female, whereas Superbad’s opening weekend audience was about 57 percent male.
Audiences who did see Booksmart came away impressed: The film got a B-plus from the audience rating service CinemaScore, and an A from women 17–34. (Superbad got an A-minus.) But despite an overt entreaty from director Olivia Wilde that a less-than-stellar result might “give studios an excuse not to green-light movies made by and about women,” those audiences stayed small. The movie not only finished behind Aladdin, Detective Pikachu, and the latest entries in the Avengers and John Wick sagas but also the gory superhero knockoff Brightburn. There are any number of ways to explain it, beginning with Booksmart’s marketing (always the first suspect), the low profiles of its stars, Wilde’s lack of a track record as a director, or the failures of the film itself, like its blind spot with regard to social class. (Although, as Slate’s review pointed out, movies like Superbad aren’t without their own blind spots, as Seth Rogen has himself admitted.) But the real culprit seems to be its distributor, United Artists Releasing, a joint venture between the film’s producer, Annapurna Pictures, and MGM.* In the midst of reported turmoil, Annapurna has badly fumbled the release of movies like If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to his Oscar-winning Moonlight, and seemed to abandon others, like the Nicole Kidman–starring Destroyer. (It’s only fair to note that the studio also steered Vice to more than $76 million in worldwide earnings and eight Oscar nominations—and that the studio’s founder, Megan Ellison, has accused reporters focusing on the company’s failures of sexism.)
Instead of swinging for the fences by opening wide, United Artists could have let it expand into more theaters slowly, as A24 did with Lady Bird, whose $78 million take ought to silence any notions that audiences simply won’t turn out for movies about young women. Given that Booksmart was simultaneously released on Netflix in other parts of the world, a slow theatrical expansion would likely have exacerbated issues with online piracy, but it would have been preferable to what now looks like a highly public belly-flop. It might not have changed the movie’s fate overall, but in a few weeks, we could have been talking about its $15 million or $20 million take as a success story rather than a failure. It’s not fair or even sensible to hold every movie that isn’t about straight white men as a referendum on inclusiveness—nor, with rare exceptions, does guilting ticket buyers into supporting the cause seem to be an effective marketing tactic. But as long as so many seem intent on doing that, it’s better to shoot for the middle and let audiences spread the word than aim high and have a movie’s entire fate rest on who shows up in the first 72 hours.
Correction, May 28, 2019: This article originally misstated that Booksmart was distributed by Annapurna Pictures. It was produced by Annapurna and distributed by United Artists Releasing.