Coming-of-age comedy ‘Booksmart’ disappoints at the box office. What happened?

Billie Lourd, left, and Kaitlyn Dever in the film "Booksmart," directed by Olivia Wilde.
(Francois Duhamel / Annapurna Pictures)

Like a straight-A student on the eve of graduation, Annapurna Pictures’ R-rated teen coming-of-age comedy “Booksmart” had a lot going for it. The movie earned stellar reviews, scored an enthusiastic reception at the South by Southwest Film Festival and even drew favorable comparisons to the hit 2007 film “Superbad.”

The studio was confident enough to give “Booksmart” — about a pair of studious high school girls who try to cram four years’ worth of misbehavior into one wild night — a wide release at the beginning of summer.


And yet, the film drew a modest audience in its opening weekend, grossing $8.69 million in its first four days of release. While that’s close to what analysts were expecting, it was nonetheless a disappointing result for a film that played in 2,500 theaters in North America during busy Memorial Day weekend. Audiences instead flocked to Walt Disney Co.’s “Aladdin,” a live-action remake of the 1990s animated musical, which grossed $112.7 million Friday through Monday.

Apparently reacting to the low early results, “Booksmart” director Olivia Wilde on Saturday called on her 1.8 million Twitter followers to get more people to their local multiplex as soon as possible.

In the wake of the lackluster box office opening, some on social media accused Annapurna Pictures, the company launched by Megan Ellison, of botching the debut. The West Hollywood company, known for movies including “Vice,” “Detroit” and “If Beale Street Could Talk,” has struggled to create commercial hits despite a reputation for making high-quality pictures. The movie was distributed theatrically by United Artists Releasing, a joint venture formed by Annapurna and MGM.

Some blasted the company’s decision to embark on a wide release on a busy holiday weekend, rather than try to build word-of-mouth through a limited initial unveiling during a less competitive time of year, such as August or in the fall. Better timing may have given the film more time to find its audience through a smaller release before expanding nationwide.

Others criticized the company’s marketing campaign, though filmmakers including writer-director Nijla Mu’min, who made the 2018 coming-of-age tale “Jinn,” countered that the studio’s promotional push for “Booksmart” was robust.


Still others said lofty audience hopes that the movie, which lacks major stars, would become the female box office equivalent of “Superbad” were unrealistic. “Superbad,” written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, had a clear built-in audience because of its connection with Judd Apatow’s brand of comedy after the success of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up.”

To some observers, “Booksmart” is simply the latest example of a midlevel movie to fall victim to today’s franchise-driven box office market.

Smaller movies, including STX’s “UglyDolls” and Lionsgate’s rom-com “Long Shot,” struggled badly earlier this month in the wake of Marvel Studios’ “Avengers: Endgame.” This weekend alone, cinemas will be flooded with highly anticipated new releases, including Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures’ “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” Paramount Pictures’ Elton John biopic “Rocketman” and Blumhouse Productions’ Octavia Spencer horror offering “Ma.”

“Summer’s a very tough marketplace,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “You’re stuck between all these mega blockbusters that everyone wants to see. Talk to any indie distributor.”

Ellison was not immediately available for comment. But United Artists Releasing President of Distribution Erik Lomis defended the company’s strategy, saying it’s about more than just opening weekend.


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“We have always believed, and actually proven, that we have a movie that audiences love, and we are expecting the film to play well into the summer,” Lomis said Tuesday. “We are not quitting on this great film. We’re confident that it’s going to leg out.”

But why risk a broad summer release?

Executives were looking for a way to connect with “Booksmart’s” target audience of women ages 17 to 34, and movies that start with limited releases tend to draw older crowds. A somewhat comparable film from last year, A24’s “Eighth Grade,” had a so-called platform release, starting with four theaters and gradually building up to more than 1,000. Yet it ended its run with a mere $13.5 million in box office receipts.

As for the idea of opening later in the year, STX’s critically acclaimed “The Edge of Seventeen” opened in November 2016 but took in only $14.4 million. Unless an indie film gets Oscar buzz, as A24’s “Lady Bird” did in 2017, it’s hard to get attention even in the fall. By opening in late May, the studio thought it could draw the target crowds just in time for summer vacation.

Also, Annapurna and United Artists thought they had a chance for a summer breakout hit after getting raves from “Booksmart’s” March debut at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, a festival that helped propel the success of R-rated comedies “Blockers” and “Trainwreck.”

The gamble may not have paid off right away. But Annapurna and United Artists still have hopes for “Booksmart,” which opened more or less in line with their expectations, boasts a 97% fresh Rotten Tomatoes score and won the endorsement of celebrities such as Ellen DeGeneres (executives declined to disclose the movie’s budget). The marketing push relied largely on a digital promotional campaign to target young women on social media.


But it still faces a steep challenge amid continued pressure from studio giants — literally. “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” is expected to top the charts this weekend with at least $50 million from the U.S. and Canada alone.