This weekend, Will Smith saw a career-low opening at the box office with Warner Bros./New Line/Village Roadshow’s holiday melodrama Collateral Beautywhich debuted to $7M at 3,028 theaters.

Typically the recent go-to excuse whenever Smith tanks at the B.O. is that the actor is out of his tentpole wheelhouse, venturing into more offbeat dramas (i.e. last year’s Focus’ $18.7M opening, $53.9M domestic), but Collateral Beauty‘s bombing is about more than a leading star’s choices and suggests something more systemic at the box office: Critics, more than ever, can dictate the financial fate of a movie, particularly one that’s inherently a crowd-pleaser.

The Rotten Tomatoes aggregation power era is a dilemma that keeps many studio executives awake at night, and Collateral Beauty, which is pained by a 14% overall Rotten rating, but boosted by an A- CinemaScore joins other disconnected pics at this year’s B.O. including Alice through the Looking Glass (A- CinemaScore, 30% rotten, $77M domestic B.O.), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (A- CinemaScore, 38% Rotten, $82M domestic B.O.) and even X-Men: Apocalypse (A- CinemaScore, 48% Rotten, $155.4M domestic) which saw a slowdown in its Memorial Day opening to $65.8M over FSS.

null
DreamWorks

It use to be a panned tearjerker could get by at the box office; that reviews only impacted upscale arthouse movies. Does Collateral Beauty‘s bombing further indicate how intolerant audiences can be toward Kleenex movies today, especially after reviews hit? Last September, the feature adaptation of bestseller The Light Between Oceans was eroded with a $12.5M domestic take (B+ CinemaScore, middling 59% rotten reivews).  Some say ‘No’, pointing to the example of The Fault in our Stars ($124.8M) and Nicholas Sparks’ movies. A hurdle for Collateral Beauty which it didn’t shy away with in its marketing is dealing with the death of a child, and that can be a hard thing to watch during the holiday season.

GHOST, Demi Moore, Patrick Swayze, 1990, (c) Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection
Paramount

In the current Rotten Tomatoes pack-rat reviewer era, would 1990’s schmultzy Oscar best picture nominee Ghost even have a shot at becoming a B.O. hit? Even with a poor review from the New York Times that movie became the second-highest grossing title of its year with $217.6M domestic. Back in those days, the studios didn’t have Rotten Tomatoes to worry about, rather two guys dictating mainstream moviegoing: Siskel and Ebert (they both gave it a thumbs up). “Still, even if they thumbed down a film, you could survive at the box office,” says one distribution executive this morning.

What’s even more disheartening and a head-scratcher for Warner Bros./New Line: Collateral Beauty‘s test scores were through the roof with over 90% in two polls and an 81% definite recommend. A looming bomb, it was not. But then tracking hit showing a huge opening swing between $6M-$12M.It’s a vicious cycle if you think about it: In this streaming Netflix-Golden TV age renaissance where moviegoers will think twice about heading out to the multiplex, critics arguably have the power to keep them at home, shut down a movie, and put exhibition in a stalemate. When a movie like Collateral Beauty dies, it’s from here that industry discussions ensue regarding the collapse of theatrical windows and the introduction of premium VOD in the home so that a studio can quickly recoup their costs.

Collateral Beauty follows a New York ad exec played by Will Smith, who loses his daughter and gets into a funk. He begins to write letters to Death, Time and Love. The peers at his office hire actors to portray these people in an effort to show that Smith’s character has gone off the rails. In sum, his peers vie to steal the company away from him. Through it all, Smith’s character has some heart-to-heart conversations with Death, Time and Love.

ps-i-love-you

Warner Bros. had high hopes for the movie as counterprogramming against Rogue One‘s $155M opening weekend, and becoming the choice for older females (who turned up at 55% females, 78% over 25). That may still be the case as Collateral Beauty‘s prime demo becomes fully available after Christmas day. In fact, the studio is comping Collateral Beauty to the 2007 weepy P.S. I Love You, which was also panned by critics, posted a dismal $6.5M opening, but received an A- CinemaScore and did over an 8 multiple with a final domestic of $53.7m.

Collateral Beauty received vicious reviews with such headlines like the New York Post‘s “Collateral Beauty does Collateral Damage” and its critic Kyle Smith declaring, “This must be the first movie ever made in which the death of a child is presented as a pesky obstacle to a corporate sale.” The headline for the New York Times’ review read “Lots of Plastic in the Face of Collateral Beauty” with Manohla Dargis (who by the way loved Ghostbusters) raging “The five stages of grief sometimes seem applicable to movie reviewing, except that I usually skip denial, rarely get around to acceptance and generally just settle into anger, which is where I am with Collateral Beauty.”

Speaking with Deadline yesterday morning, a person close to the Collateral Beauty production declared that the film’s reviews were a “schoolyard assault.” Unfortunately, a pack nature pervades among reviewers: Damned they are by their bosses should their opinion ever steer from the mainstream pack.

Warner Bros. even received sympathy from a rival major studio distribution executive who defended the mass-appealing qualities of Collateral Beauty: “Film critics are narrow-minded and have dark hearts. They prefer something like Manchester by the Sea which is significantly much darker than this film and deals with a similar set-up: the death of children,” said the executive.

Michelle Williams, Casey Affleck - Manchester by the Sea.jpeg
Claire Folger

To the executive’s point, the presence of the awards darling Manchester by the Sea in the marketplace (it broke wide in over 1,200 theaters, grossing $4.1M for a running cume in its fifth weekend of $14M) may have also slowed Collateral Beauty‘s momentum, particularly in how both titles were vying for older adults. Selling the death of a child is a challenge to market and sometimes scares an audience off: Manchester avoided it entirely in its trailers focusing more on Casey Affleck’s character taking in his teenage nephew. Ditto for Paramount’s Arrivals which was sold as a thinking-person’s sci-fi movie. Collateral really had no choice in avoiding the topic in its heart-tugging trailers. Those connected with the movie say that the tested marketing materials for Collateral Beauty were never a headache, but conveyed the film’s emotion.

Smith himself even admitted this summer at a Cannes Lions marketing session how social media messaging makes it impossible for studios to shield bad-word-of-mouth movies heading into their opening weekend.

“The power has gone away from the marketers,” Smith said, and as a star, he has to “not trick them (fans) into going to see Wild Wild West. ... Back in the ’80s and ’90s you had a piece of crap movie you put a trailer with a lot of explosions and it was Wednesday before people knew your movie was sh*t,” Smith explained. “But now what happens is 10 minutes into the movie, people are tweeting ‘This is sh*t, go see Vin Diesel’.”

Hailee Steinfeld, Haley Lu Richardson - The Edge of Seventeen.jpeg
STX Entertainment

Then there’s also the factor of Collateral Beauty going up against a monster like Rogue One. Most adult movies grossed in the single digits this weekend. Last month we saw STX release their critically praised and audience embraced The Edge of Seventeen (94% fresh, A- CinemaScore) against Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them($74.4M), and that smart James L. Brooks R-rated teen comedy production died with a $4.75M opening and a near $15M stateside cume. Some rivals suggested that releasing Collateral Beauty at a quieter time may have spurred better word of mouth instead of the holiday crush where it’s competing with a number of prolific awards contenders as La La Land, Fences, Hidden Figures, and Manchester by the Sea to name a few.

Image (1) RottenTomatoes__130916181837.jpg for post 588263

So how do studios get around the power of aggregate review sites? While Rotten Tomatoes is a neutral collection site, it should be pointed out that the entertainment conglomerates themselves have built the wattage of this portal overtime: Early on, News Corp owned it via IGN, then Warner Bros. owned RT via Flixster before the entire unit was sold to Comcast’s Fandango in early February. It’s not just a website that we in the industry gawk at, but average moviegoers in non-Metropolitan parts of the country swear by it.

Whenever one buys tickets on its partner Fandango’s site, there’s a film’s Rotten Tomatoes rating staring you straight in the face. Why haven’t the majors taken umbrage with that?

In an effort to steer the general public’s observation toward more positive results, the majors may want to consider using upbeat PostTrak, CinemaScore, NPD scores in their ads, well in advance of a film’s opening (the first two polling companies largely test during a film’s opening weekend, so a change in their process might be required).

Said Warner Bros. domestic distribution czar Jeff Goldstein this morning about the results of Collateral Beauty, “While I had hoped for stronger attendance this weekend, I’m hopeful audiences will discover this terrific film that’s well done and uplifting and has a great message of hope and connection.”