When a film as heavily promoted and well-regarded as Universal’s She Said gets body-slammed at the box office, it’s wise to pay attention.
This weekend, the journalism procedural drama, about the pursuit of sexual predator Harvey Weinstein by two reporters from The New York Times, will take in perhaps $2.27 million in 2,022 theaters. That’s less than half of the already minimal $5-to-6 million predicted a few short days ago—a brutal drubbing for a film that had generally good reviews and as of Saturday was tagged by eight out of 22 “experts” at sister site Gold Derby as one of the ten top contenders for Best Picture.
The opening is a flop, and not the kind that can be written off to technical failures—the wrong theaters, a bad release date, poor marketing or whatever.
Rather, the audience simply turned away. It didn’t even look, never mind the presumed advantages of a high-profile story, a prominent New York Film Festival debut, and a talented cast, featuring Zoe Kazan, Carey Mulligan and Patricia Clarkson.
So somebody is sending a message, and it behooves an increasingly wobbly film business to figure out exactly what that is.
By Monday, there will be plenty of opinions, I’m sure. And with the weekend still underway, it’s impossible to offer more than educated guesswork. But, for what it’s worth, here are my best guesses so far:
Viewers are emotionally exhausted. They’ve poured their entire reservoir of indignation and resentment into a midterm election that left political and cultural tensions essentially unchanged. There’s simply nothing left to spend on a real-life, prosecutorial picture, not even one that, as reviewer Alexis Soloski wrote in The Times, makes a point of avoiding over-heated polemics. (“In place of firebrand feminism, the film emphasizes decency, perspicacity and rigor,” she insisted.) Especially fascinating is the emergence of Angel Studios’ The Chosen: Season 3 –a faith-based story about Jesus Christ and his followers–as the weekend’s second-ranked theatrical event, right behind the week-old Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, with perhaps $10 million in box-office sales. Ripped-from-the-headlines conflict is in eclipse; faith and fantasy are rising.
People are done with Harvey Weinstein. Yes, he’s still on trial for sex crimes in Los Angeles. But the current prosecution is anticlimax. No matter what the jury decides, he has already been convicted of rape in New York, is behind bars, and will stay that way, barring some Cosby-like victory on appeal. Meanwhile, media consumers in the prime movie-going demographic, the adult young, have moved on to more contemporary villains. The current favorite, eclipsing even the progressives’ nemesis Elon Musk, is 30-year-old Sam Bankman-Fried, the disgraced crypto-king. With last week’s bidding on a Michael Lewis book about Bankman-Fried’s FTX scandal, a race to the screen, large or small, has begun. By the time it ends, alas, his story may be as wrung out as Weinstein’s. But that’s the nature of the media beast.
Journalists aren’t as interesting as they think they are. Including those from The New York Times, and I say this having been one. In the movies, reporters and editors play best when they are deeply flawed, like the cynical schemer portrayed by Kirk Douglas in Billy Wilder’s Ace In The Hole, or the many iterations of semi-corrupt Hildy Johnson and Walter Burns, or those imperfect boomer heroes Woodward and Bernstein, about whose All The President’s Men tactics we continue to debate. Even Spotlight, a Best Picture winner and the best-remembered journalism drama of recent years, traded on some loopy character portrayals—especially Liev Schreiber’s deadpan, dead-on performance as Boston Globe editor Marty Baron—and took tongue-in-cheek advantage from playing as a period piece. Released in 2015, when the reckless Internet ruled, the picture had fun with the old-fashioned gumshoe shuffling of journalists who, working only 12 or 13 years earlier, already seemed like dinosaurs. She Said, by contrast, is pretty pious. As the Times reviewer Soloski reminds us, these reporters do things properly. And when they knock on your door, your first instinct is, well, to run the other way.