It's Hard Out There For An Indie Comedy at the Box Office

'Booksmart' didn't have a huge opening, but rather than complaining about that, let's just keep appreciating that it exists.

Booksmart
Annapurna Pictures

Over Memorial Day Weekend, an estimated 965,700 people went to see the movie Booksmart. That’s nothing compared to the 13 million tickets sold for Disney’s Aladdin, but it’s nothing to cry about either. The latter was always going to draw the crowds, although even that movie could have had a bigger opening. Movie attendance will continue to decline, but the fans should continue to celebrate the stuff they enjoy and appreciate the fact that the industry is, for now, still putting out such diverse offerings. Complaining, shaming, and blaming may only do more harm. And already has, because the internet always brings about a backlash quickly.

Critics preferred the little indie teen comedy with its 97% Rotten Tomatoes score, and the mainstream audience chose the less-acclaimed (58% on Rotten Tomatoes) big-budget live-action remake of a Disney animated classic, not just with their wallets but also their ratings — opening-night moviegoers polled by CinemaScore gave Aladdin an ‘A’ grade and Booksmart a ‘B+’, and on Rotten Tomatoes, a small but representative subset of ticket buyers (as verified through a new endeavor with parent company Fandango) rated the former 94% and the latter 75%. More people saw Aladdin, and more of those people were satisfied with their decision.

Others were not so happy about that, as discussions dominated social media, and debate ensued. Damn all those families who fed their nostalgia with a reimagined take on a beloved 1992 film (the top-grossing domestic release of that year)! And damn everyone else (save for those 965,700 people) for not seeing the acclaimed movie written by, directed by, and starring women! But then, from another corner, there was some sarcastic boohooing about the box office disappointment of Booksmart, with its relatively white and privileged characters and a notably nepotistic supporting cast (including Carrie Fisher’s daughter and Cuba Gooding Jr.’s son) and made by an established actress making her seemingly easy leap to directing.

After all, Aladdin isn’t just some bland literal translation of a well-known fairytale. The remake, regardless of its sometimes shoddy quality, is still a win for representation, especially for being the second success in less than a year for a movie with a lead actor of Egyptian descent (the other is Bohemian Rhapsody). Were it not for Disney’s animated adaptation and now this remake, audiences might not even know any Middle Eastern folk stories — Aladdin is not like Beauty and the Beast, which has a thousand and one other screen incarnations — and Disney did improve matters of cultural representation given the controversy of their animated version while also expanding the main female character in a progressively positive way.

For all the gripes about a remake dominating the box office, Booksmart isn’t necessarily the most original idea, either. At its inception, back when the script was on the Black List a decade ago, the comedy was your average teens trying to get some lovin’ on Prom Night rehash, only it focused on female protagonists (that basic idea had been done decades earlier without the prom stuff with something like Foxes and has been done since with the prom part with Blockers, too). When the project was first put into development, the interest was in how the movie was reminiscent of ’80s high school movies such as The Breakfast Club and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. “It’s meant as much to be nostalgic as it is modern,” says screenwriter Katie Silberman. After its premiere at SXSW, critics compared it to Superbad and Lady Bird. Over the weekend, I saw it called this generation’s Can’t Hardly Wait. Those are fair comparisons, but they don’t make Booksmart sound like a rush out and see it kind of movie.

Yes, there was a time when Americans, especially young Americans flocked to the movies to see comedies of this sort. Superbad drew 4.8 million people in its first weekend. That’s the best the high school comedy genre has ever performed (if we exclude Spider-Man: Homecoming). Mean Girls debuted similarly a few years earlier, to the tune of 3.9 million tickets. Blockers drew 2.2 million at first. Can’t Hardly Wait, not a hit at the time, began with 1.7 million tickets sold. Those were also all put out by major studios, but the truth is there was nothing that makes a movie like Booksmart or The Edge of Seventeen, which debuted with even less of an audience a few years ago, a must-see in theaters, not for the price anyway. Comedy is so subjective that even if one loves Superbad, that doesn’t mean they’ll laugh as much during Booksmart. And when people go to a comedy and don’t laugh, they don’t think of it as a personal issue where they didn’t find the movie to be funny as much as it’s the movie’s fault for not being funnier.

People know what they’re getting with Disney, though. For all the claims that Aladdin is the comfort food of this weekend’s selection, that’s true, but it’s also not the same thing as the 1992 movie for the simple reason that it’s not a cartoon. Even if it looks like it sometimes. It’s still superficially unlike anything audiences could see at home right now. Why the spectacle of a flying carpet ride was more appealing than the spectacle of a flying elephant in Disney’s live-action Dumbo, which Aladdin has already nearly surpassed domestically (and which got a nice boost this weekend likely due to Aladdin‘s release), is not entirely clear save for maybe the nostalgia for the Aladdin property and its music being greater and more recent. But moviegoers all over the world like this stuff, and that’s fine.

Booksmart not doing better at the box office is not necessarily the fault of the distributor, United Artists Releasing, any more than it’s their fault that people didn’t want to see their recent, rather uninteresting animated feature Missing Link. It’s not Netflix’s fault for giving people easier home viewing options any more than it’s video game companies’ or sports broadcasters’. And it’s not the fault of Disney for giving family audiences, who aren’t the target of an R-rated teen comedy anyway, something they could be guaranteed to enjoy on a big screen. Getting mad at people for going to see something else isn’t going to get them to now go see Booksmart, and getting mad at UAR or Annapurna isn’t going to make them feel appreciated for at least taking the chance on something different.

Those who like Booksmart should definitely be positive in continuing to champion and recommend it. Keep the focus on strong word of mouth rather than negative reactions. They ought to appreciate that the thing exists and that Megan Ellison of Annapurna is still trying to get small- to medium-sized movies produced and that Gary Sanchez Productions has a female-focused arm, and that, according to that subsidiary’s founder, Jessica Elbaum, this movie only had a real opportunity because of where things are going in Hollywood now compared to when the script first made waves in 2009.

The funny thing in all this is that the Booksmart versus Aladdin comparison is not just simple apples to oranges, it’s relevant to the story in Booksmart in that this box office narrative is about realizing the popular kid, Disney, is also successful at many of the same things the lesser-known kid, Booksmart, such as inclusion and female empowerment, even if all its grades aren’t quite as high, and they still get to have all the fun and financial accomplishment, as well. It’s not a contest, just everyone doing as well as they can and hopefully winding up liked well enough on some level. Aladdin can be an easy hit but still did the work to get there, while Booksmart has its own audience and that will grow later. Bask in what we’ve got and in the variety while we can.

Here are the holiday weekend’s estimated top 12 domestic release titles by the number of tickets sold with new and newly wide titles in bold and totals in parentheses:

1. Aladdin – 13 million (13 million)
2. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum – 3.4 million (11.9 million)
3. Avengers: Endgame — 2.4 million (89.2 million)
4. Pokémon: Detective Pikachu – 1.9 million (13.3 million)
5. Brightburn — 1.1 million (1.1 million)
6. Booksmart — 0.97 million (1 million)
7. A Dog’s Journey – 0.6 million (1.8 million)
8. The Hustle — 0.5 million (3.4 million)
9. The Intruder – 0.3 million (3.6 million)
10. Long Shot — 0.2 million (3.2 million)
11. Dumbo — 0.13 million (12.5 million)
12. The Sun Is Also a Star – 0.12 million (0.5 million)

All non-forecast box office figures via Box Office Mojo.

Christopher began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called 'Read,' back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials.