After spending 15 years as a working actress in Hollywood, Olivia Wilde made her directorial debut going behind the lens of the teen comedy Booksmart, starring Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein. The movie puts a modern twist on high school angst films, following two academic overachievers as they fight to make up for four years of being anti-social in order to get into top-tier colleges. Their R-rated cram session puts a much-needed spin on the slackers-gone-wild trope popularized in films like Superbad (which starred Feldstein’s brother Jonah Hill), giving it a queer and feminine facelift.
“Superbad is a classic in the comedy medium and I can only hope that Booksmart will be looked back upon with the same sort of vigor for this generation that Superbad did for mine,” Mason Gooding, who stars as Nick, told BET.com.
Like any first-time director, Wilde took to social media to promote her film, imploring fans to support Booksmart during the critical opening weekend. Planting their flag on Memorial Day weekend meant going toe to toe with the likes of Disney’s Aladdin, the live-action remake of the animated classic starring Will Smith as the genie. But with a diverse range of films like Zero Dark Thirty, Her, Vice, If Beale Street Could Talk and Sorry to Bother You in its roster, distributor Annapurna's pictures had a track record of getting films noticed. And with strong reviews and buzz from SXSW, Booksmart was given every chance to succeed, being placed in over 2,500 theaters nationwide.
Nevertheless, panic seemed to be setting in as early estimates began to come in — and didn’t look good — and Wilde rallied her troops (and many famous friends) with the following tweet:
“Anyone out there saving @Booksmart for another day, consider making that day TODAY,” she wrote. “We are getting creamed by the big dogs out there and need your support. Don’t give studios an excuse not to green-light movies made by and about women.”
The tweet inspired a frenzy from supporters who did everything from blame Netflix for the film’s perceived underperformance to shaming viewers for seeing other big budget films like John Wick 3 in lieu of Booksmart.
Screenwriter Scott Myers wrote: “In a parallel universe, #Booksmart has been distributed by @A24, it has opened at #1 at the box office, is well on its way to $100M in domestic revenues, and will spawn a spate of post-modern, post-John Hughes adolescent comedies. [Subtext: Support Booksmart!].”
Editor Jacob S. Hall opined that “BOOKSMART could’ve been a $100 million grosser if Annapurna knew a damn thing about movie marketing…The studio knew they had a crowdpleaser at SXSW. They dropped the ball in a major way and I’m never going to get over this. Olivia Wilde and everyone else involved deserves to work and work often.”
However, the tweets were filled with a sense of despair that belies the recent history of releases featuring and directed by women. Taraji P. Henson’s What Men Want kicked the year off with a respectable $17 million weekend gross and went on to make $72 million worldwide. Little, directed by Tina Gordon Chism and starring Regina Hall, Issa Rae and Marsai Martin, made $15 million in its opening weekend and has grossed $40 million thus far. While we can all have differing opinions about the respective films, the idea that Hollywood is suddenly going to stop making films made by or featuring women if Booksmart didn’t succeed felt more than a little self-serving.
Jinn director Nilja Muhammad wishes that her 2018 coming-of-age film, featuring a Black American Muslim girl discovering her sexuality, had received the same push as Booksmart.
“This is so interesting. I wish my film would’ve got half the marketing and attention as Booksmart,” she wrote in response to Jacob Hall’s tweet. “I saw ads for this film everywhere.”
Author Roxane Gay summarized the feelings of many who felt they were being manipulated to support something they were TOLD was for them, but didn’t really fit the bill.
“I’ve seen more than a few tweets basically pressuring people to see Booksmart or else more movies like it won’t get made. This strategy never works and it is always deployed for movies that cater to anyone but straight white men,” she wrote on Twitter. “I’m sure Booksmart is great. I will see it at some point and enjoy it but, honestly, I don’t care about loquacious white girls in high school. That is not at the top of my entertainment list today. And it is up against Endgame, John Wick and Alladin.”
When you remove the emotion from it and look at the history of how these films performed, Booksmart’s $8 million opening is not out of the norm and is in line with studio projections. The aforementioned A24 distributed Oscar darlings Moonlight and Lady Bird (which Feldstein was in), but those films opened to $1.4 million and $4 million respectively.
The privilege demonstrated in the Booksmart rallying ignores 2019 independent darling Fast Color. The second feature film by director Julia Hart starred Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lorraine Toussaint and Saniyya Sidney as three generations of women with superhuman abilities. The film earned Hart nominations at the Palm Springs International Film Festival and SXSW for her work. But it was only released in 25 theaters nationwide as fans lamented not being able to find it anywhere to support.
“If you didn’t have anything to say about #FastColor, its release or its distribution, you can’t say a single meaningful thing about #Booksmart,” wrote activist Shanelle Little. “Ya’ll always tell on yourself, revealing yourselves to be card carrying white feminist.”
To be fair, at the time of Fast Color’s release there were also fans trying to shame viewers who paid to see Avengers: Endgame, but that argument fell flat when fans who WANTED to see it couldn’t even find it playing in their city. Hopefully, it will fare better when it is released on VOD in the coming weeks.
Somewhere in this debate about diversity and inclusion it’s being lost that the number-one film in the country, Aladdin, stars a predominantly brown cast, and the R-rated superhero film Brightburn, which is probably the antithesis of Booksmart in every conceivable way, performed about the same at the box office this weekend. Creators and marketers have their hands full trying to reach audiences for their art, but the point still remains that creating an adversarial relationship between fans and the big budget releases that they want to see and the niche or left of center projects is not the way to go. Shame should never be a marketing strategy, especially from a position of relative privilege.
Photo Credit: Annapurna Films/ Legendary Entertainment/Code Black films