Universal’s #MeToo pic joins films like ”Till“ and ”Tár“ that get Oscar buzz for tackling tough topics but can’t win over audiences looking for an escape
Universal’s journalism drama “She Said” has become one of the worst-performing wide releases in box office history, grossing a miserable $2.25 million from 2,022 theaters. But the film’s failure is just one example of several acclaimed prestige films that are getting Oscar buzz for tackling tough real-world topics but are being largely avoided by audiences looking for escapism at the multiplex.
Here’s a box office stat that will chill any studio exec with a mature awards contender: “Terrifier 2,” a gory indie slasher film that grossed $10.5 million in October, currently has a higher total than “She Said,” Focus Features’ “Tár,” United Artists’ “Till” or Searchlight Pictures’ “The Banshees of Inisherin,” all films predicted by awards gurus to have a significant presence on the Oscar nomination list.
While all of those films have had different screen counts and release strategies, they are all focused on exploring tough issues in today’s society including cancel culture (“Tár”), racism and hate crimes (“Till”), depression (“Banshees”) and the #MeToo movement (“She Said”); and all of them have only found interest among a limited pool of moviegoers.
The pandemic has not only changed the release patterns of films but also the interests of audiences, making a film about the New York Times’ investigation into disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein an even harder sell than it already would be. Along with showing plenty of tearful, trauma-stricken women being interviewed about the worst moment of their lives, “She Said” opens with Times reporter Megan Twohey’s investigation into sexual abuse allegations against Donald Trump just weeks before his 2016 election victory.
And now, “She Said” is coming out as Trump is back in the news with his 2024 presidential campaign and reinstatement on Twitter, adding to headlines about inflation, an impending recession and war in Ukraine that has left films like “She Said” feeling like a reminder of our tough reality at a time when the general public wants a distraction from it.
Escapism has always been a powerful force at the box office, but the numbers show that it’s being valued more than ever. As films that reflect and confront our struggling world flounder, “Top Gun: Maverick” has soared to the top of the charts while the wacky yet life-affirming “Everything Everywhere All at Once” remains the gold standard for indie success in this post-shutdown era. Even “Terrifier 2,” gruesome and niche as it is, is providing its own twisted form of escape for horror lovers.
“‘Terrifier 2,’ like any popular horror film, has an appeal like the scariest roller coaster at a theme park, and these dramas just don’t have that same kind of theme park appeal,” Comscore analyst Paul Dergarabedian said. “We should applaud studios like Universal for their continued commitment to making these kinds of movies, but the awards and praise they get from critics and the small audience that do see them will have to be the currency that movies like ‘She Said’ hang on, because they’re not making the box office revenue they are supposed to.”
Even as Universal clings to hope that post-theatrical revenue will mitigate its losses on “She Said,” an Annapurna and Plan B production that had a $32 million budget before marketing, the studio is enjoying success with older audiences via “Ticket to Paradise.” The light-hearted romantic comedy starring Julia Roberts and George Clooney has grossed $61 million domestically and $158.5 million worldwide, a modest but rare success for the otherwise struggling rom-com genre.
Along with that escapism and comedic tone, it has two genuine movie stars who may be past their “Ocean’s Eleven” box office prime but still have clout with millions of moviegoers over the age of 45. Ironically, Clooney told CNN’s Chris Wallace last month that he agreed to do “Ticket to Paradise” because he needed a break from the “dark things going on in the world,” showing how the need for escapism is even being felt by Hollywood’s elite.
By contrast, “She Said” has no star power. Other recnet journalism films had A-listers like Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep in “The Post” and Michael Keaton and “Avengers” star Mark Ruffalo in the Best Picture winner “Spotlight.” “She Said” leads Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan have received praise for their work in films like “Promising Young Woman” and “The Big Sick” but are unknown to the vast majority of casual moviegoers.
Other upcoming awards contenders with lighter tones and subject matter may fare better at the box office. A case study will come with Steven Spielberg’s semiautobiographical “The Fabelmans,” which will expand to 600 theaters over Thanksgiving weekend after earning $314,000 on four screens in New York Los Angeles for the last two weekends.
Paramount, meanwhile, is optimistic about Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon,” a frenetic three-hour ride through Hollywood in the roaring ’20s starring Margot Robbie as a party-obsessed, cocaine-addicted starlet. The $78 million film is a big gamble that might not pay off if the film’s polarized word-of-mouth from early Academy screenings curdles into mixed reviews that puts off ticket buyers.
But at least “Babylon” is an effort by a major studio to address audiences’ demand for escapist fare in a non-franchise way. “She Said,” like many of this fall’s prestige films, aren’t meeting the raised threshold for many moviegoers seeking a reason to pay tickets in physical theaters, certainly when compared to similar pre-pandemic Oscar contenders like “Spotlight” ($45 million domestic), “Selma” ($52 million), “BlacKkKlansman” ($49 million) or “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” ($54.5 million).
This year’s batch of serious contenders will make a fraction of those totals, especially in a marketplace with shorter windows between theatrical and streaming debuts. In fact, any Oscar nominations announced in January are likely to come after most of this crop of films has left theaters for at-home screening.