While it’s no secret that adult-skewing movies are having a hard time on the big screen, that alone can’t explain why She Said — about The New York Times‘ seminal exposé of Harvey Weinstein — opened to an estimated $2.25 million from 2,022 theaters.
That’s one of the worst starts in modern times for a major Hollywood studio release going out in more than 2,000 theaters, including one of the lowest for Universal, despite strong reviews. Its current critics’ score on Rotten Tomatoes is 88 percent, and it earned an A CinemaScore from those moviegoers who did show up.
The filmmakers were aiming for at least $4 million to $6 million heading into the weekend. The hope now is that She Said, which had a budget of around $32 million, will gain momentum over the year-end holidays and as awards season heats up.
She Said is based on the real-life story of investigative reporters Jodi Cantor (Zoe Kazan) and Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan), whose articles for The New York Times played a key role in bringing down Weinstein.
Directed by Maria Schrader (Unorthodox), She Said is based on the book of the same name authored by Twohey and Kantor, and arrives on the big screen as Weinstein stands trial in Los Angeles on charges of rape after being sentenced to 23 years in prison by a New York Court for similar charges.
Weinstein was a formidable force in Hollywood for decades even as he abused his power.
“Is it an important story? Of course, but it’s still fresh on the cultural mind and perhaps a film made too soon,” says box office analyst Shawn Robbins. “Movies about Hollywood are hard enough to sell as is though, and the vast majority of potential audiences are not looking to spend their money on tickets, parking, and snacks to sit down and re-litigate recent and ongoing scandals. Most make plans for visiting the theater to escape and see something they aren’t already reading about in relatively recent headlines. Such has been generally true since long before the pandemic and peak streaming.”
Nearly half of ticket buyers over She Said‘s opening weekend were age 45 and older, including 33 percent over 55. And more than 60 percent of the audience were older females, a demo more hesitant to resume their moviegoing habits in the pandemic era.
It’s a well-known truism that movies about Hollywood don’t often travel well beyond Los Angeles and New York. The movie’s top-10 grossing theaters were on the two coasts.
“A film like She Said, being topical and specific to the film industry, has appeal to industry insiders and those interested in the profound issues examined within the film but clearly wasn’t created to be overtly commercial and generate big box office numbers,” says Comscore box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “The silver lining is that the filmmakers and studio swung for the fences, produced a critically acclaimed awards contender and documented one of the most consequential legal battles and notable cultural shifts in the modern era and that is something to be celebrated.”
She Said certainly isn’t the first movie to follow the investigative efforts of journalists at the country’s top newspapers. Open Road’s Spotlight, chronicling The Boston Globe‘s investigation of systematic child abuse by Catholic priests, won the Oscar for best picture in 2016 on its way to earning $45.1 million at the domestic box office and $98.7 million globally.
Spotlight opted for a platform release, opening first in five theaters in early November 2015 before expanding into 598 theaters on the weekend before Thanksgiving, when it earned $3.5 million. Over the five-day holiday weekend, it upped its location count to 897 locations, grossing another $4.9 million for an early total of $12.3 million.
Several years later, Steven Spielberg’s The Post, another tale about investigative journalism, likewise opted to rollout slowly. After opening in only a few theaters over Christmas 2017, the 20th Century Fox film grossed an impressive $19.4 million when upping its theater count from 36 to 2,819 sites over the Jan. 12-14 weekend. The Oscar nominee ultimately topped out at $81.9 million domestically and $179.8 million globally.
Robbins adds that prestige dramas usually work best when rolled out strategically. Platform releases, however, have become an endangered species in the pandemic era, leaving Universal little choice but to go wide from the get-go with She Said. At the same time, Universal has the option to make the film available on premium VOD after two weeks.
“Awards caliber films aimed at discerning mature audiences are beyond plentiful at the multiplex and yet many are having trouble finding an audience. There are any number of explanations for this but there may just be too many releases in the marketplace all at once chasing the same audience plus a modicum of health concerns that are much more on the radar for older audiences,” says Dergarabedian. “Let’s not forget that mature audiences have a different pattern of behavior and as a general rule aren’t rushing out like the Gen Z crowd opening weekend to see a film.”
Adds Robbins, “Studios may be wary of this and other recent award candidate box office performers, but content and strategy have always been king. This just happens to be a year where many of the arthouse offerings are not capturing wide appeal at a time when the industry is itching for a faster recovery in that market.”