If there was ever a weekend where stars couldn’t deliver the goods at the box office, it was this one with Bradley Cooper’s Burnt from The Weinstein Co. and Sandra Bullock’s Our Brand Is Crisis from Warner Bros. bombing with respective openings of $5.1M and $3.3M.
For Bullock, Our Brand ranks as the lowest wide opening of her career, slotting under the 1996 romantic comedy Two If By Sea ($4.7M opening, $10.7M cume) while Burnt is Cooper’s second black eye after this summer’s disaster Aloha ($9.7M opening, $21M cume) in the wake of American Sniper‘s huge success ($350.1M domestic cume). Adding further insult to injury, both moviegoers and critics rejected the titles. Burnt carries a bitter B- CinemaScore and a 29% Rotten Tomatoes rating, while Our Brand has been stigmatized with a C+ and a 33% Rotten score.
Compounding problems was the fact that both titles were odd ducks. Our Brand is a political comedy based on a 10-year old documentary of the same name about an American campaign strategist’s hand in a Bolivian presidential election. Burnt centers around a bad boy chef resurrecting himself as a Michelin-star chef in London. As we saw last weekend with Steve Jobs, these two misfires are another case of specialty films being mistreated as mass-appealing studio titles.
These upsets are personal ones for Bullock and Cooper: both titles for the former All About Steve costars were passion projects. I hear Cooper had a hand in some edits on Burnt, while Bullock lobbied Our Brand producer George Clooney to gender swap the lead role of the film because she loved the script so much. Unlike Bullock’s last global success Gravity ($723M) for which she took a $70M estimated payday, the actress cut her fee on Our Brand. Still, at a time when actresses like Jennifer Lawrence are calling for bigger paydays for women, Our Brand‘s failure to open on the back of its leading actress doesn’t help the cause.
“The weekend results for Our Brand Is Crisis are upsetting,” Sue Kroll, Warner Bros. president of worldwide marketing and distribution, said this morning. “The film was truly a collaboration between the studio and the filmmakers, and Sandy’s performance is terrific in this film. We cherish our relationship with her. Ultimately, our campaign didn’t connect with moviegoers.”
Each distributor tried to keep it cheap: Burnt carries an estimated production cost under $20M with financing covered by foreign pre-sales, while Our Brand was co-financed by Warner Bros., Participant and Ratpac at $28M-$30M. Factor in domestic TV ad spend at $12.3M for Burnt and $17.4M for Our Brand per iSpotTV and the ticket sales for these wide releases just doesn’t calculate. Warner Bros. and Weinstein Co. even spent a lower amount on TV spots when compared to Universal’s lofty $25M spot spend on Steve Jobs.
It would be easy to blame the sluggish nature of the Halloween weekend as it’s bound to steal away some older adults who are out with their kids tonight, however, both Warner Bros. and Weinstein Co. saw this frame coming. They hunkered down and went after whatever remnants of the over 25 crowd were out there. Certainly, the titles cannibalized themselves: Tracking showed that older women were the strongest demos with each, and that’s exactly who came out according to CinemasScore with Burnt drawing 66% females and Our Brand Is Crisis hooking 56%.
But given the onslaught of adult competition, why didn’t the films just move out of the fall frame and into the spring?
For TWC, Burnt was always a commercial play, not an awards one. 20th Century Fox’s decision to move The Martian from Thanksgiving to October 2nd thew a monkey wrench into everyone’s autumn turnstiles. The Ridley Scott-directed movie will hit $182M on Sunday, and it’s on track to become the director’s highest grossing title stateside, beating Gladiator‘s $187.7M. In response to Martian‘s move, Burnt jumped around October. In June, when Martian switched to Burnt‘s date of Oct. 2, the John Wells-directed movie moved to Oct. 23. When that frame became a pig-pile of genre and adult titles, TWC considered taking Burnt to New York and L.A. a week before its wide break on Oct. 30, but then opted to skip the limited release and just go wide yesterday in hopes of reaching a decent sized adult audience. One TWC insider mentioned that moving Burnt to spring after its October juggling would have labeled Burnt as being a less-than-par title. Some point to the success of Jon Favreau’s foodie movie Chef ($31.4M); however, one rival distrib thought that Burnt’s bad boy chef plot wasn’t appealing enough for the bigscreen: “Why watch it when you can watch that on any reality TV show nowadays?”
Internally, Warner Bros. executives debated whether the spring or the fall was the best time for Our Brand. Ultimately it was decided that the David Gordon Green-directed movie had a better chance of hitting the presidential election zeitgeist in the fall, particularly with its inside look at the political process. Furthermore, there was an opportunity to push Bullock into the lead actress awards season race. Given the actress’ mass appeal, and the fact that the pic’s campaign was built around her charm within the context of the movie, Warner Bros. opted to go wide instead of platforming. This was a similar path that Clooney and producer Grant Heslov’s last political drama, 2011’s The Ides of March, took by debuting in 2,199 theaters ($10.5M opening, $40.9M). Ides suffered in regards to its B.O. to cost ratio. Which begs the question: Why make Our Brand at all?
Despite the fact that the recent round of candidate debates have been racking up huge TV ratings with viewers watching them like bloodsports, this same crowd doesn’t have the need to watch political drama play out on the big screen. Our Brand will join the ranks of such political feature letdowns as Ides of March, W. ($25.5M) and 1998’s Primary Colors ($39M). Talk about tea leaves for this sub-genre: the tanking of Primary Colors indicated early on that political movies aren’t worth their weight in gold. Director Mike Nichols paid north of $1M for the rights to the bestselling novel, which was largely based on the rise of then-President Bill Clinton. Nichols and Universal mounted a $65M production starring then A-lister John Travolta only to see Primary Colors crash with a $39M stateside cume. The fact that Clinton was severing his second term didn’t even create any want-to-see.
Warner Bros. launched Our Brand at the Toronto International Film Festival a month ago to the event’s passionate set of moviegoers. Judging from the audience reaction at the Princess of Wales theater premiere, it sounded like Our Brand received a positive reaction. However, clunky reviews soon arrived out of TIFF, which didn’t contribute to any groundswell as the film headed into a crowded fall frame.
Another insider close to Our Brand offered up a poignant observation on the bombing of both Our Brand and Burnt: “There’s a part in Our Brand where a character remarks ‘Every thinking person will vote for you…but we need more than that. We need a majority.’ These two movies — they’re for thinking people.”