Is ‘Booksmart’ The Box Office Failure People Are Making It Out To Be?


Booksmart, one of the best-reviewed films of 2019 (and, incidentally, my second favorite movie of the year), earned $8.7 million over its four-day opening weekend, good for sixth place behind fellow new releases Aladdin and Brightburn. That’s despite director Olivia Wilde’s call to arms against the “big dogs out there” and a major marketing push from Annapurna Pictures. So, what happened? Why has Booksmart attracted more headlines with the word “bombed” and “failure” and “goes unread” than moviegoers? I’d argue it’s because we’re looking at Booksmart‘s box office numbers the wrong way.

Is $9 million a good opening for a movie that was released into 2,500 theaters? No, but to think that Booksmart — an indie-comedy with no established leads (even if Kaitlyn Dever should be the biggest star in the world), a first-time filmmaker, and no obvious hook (what if Pikachu… was a detective?) — was going to be a huge hit is (sadly) unrealistically optimistic. Especially in a weekend when it was going against Aladdin, which attracted, as the Hollywood Reporter pointed out, the same demographic as Booksmart:

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.

Annapurna is getting a lot of the “blame” for Booksmart‘s soft opening, mostly for immediately going wide — during blockbuster season, no less — instead of building buzz through a limited release in markets like New York and California. “If there’s no big star and you can’t find a commercial trailer then you book theaters for a slow rollout to build word of mouth. This is distribution 101,” IndieWire’s editor-at-large Anne Thompson tweeted, while author Mark Harris added, “I keep reading about the shocking underperformance of Booksmart, and… did people think it was going to gross more? It sounds good, I’ll see it this week, but I don’t get the surprise. It’s an indie without box office names that needs word of mouth. Odd choice to open wide.” But Booksmart didn’t underachieve so much as it performed reasonably well for a non-franchise film; it’s hard out there for an original property with no obvious sequel potential.

(I’ve also seen a lot of comparisons between Booksmart and Superbad, specifically how the latter high school-set comedy that takes place mostly over one night made over $169 million while the former will be lucky to crack $20 million. But Superbad was sold as extension of the red-hot Judd Apatow/Seth Rogen brand, only months after Knocked Up was a huge hit. “Booksmart, starring the 16th lead of The Last Jedi” can’t complete with that. Also, Superbad came out during mid-August, when the public was exhausted by explosions and robots.)

Booksmart might not have set the box office on fire, but it will assuredly have a longer shelf life than bigger hits from 2019, like The Upside or What Men Want; it has “future Netflix mainstay” written all over it. It deserved better, but so did The Edge of Seventeen, Dazed and Confused (a measly $8 million), and many other great teen movies before it. It’s a shame Booksmart didn’t do better, but there are worse fates than a generational classic with Taylor Swift’s support.

Still, go see Booksmart in a theater while you can. It’s real good.