It seemed inevitable that IT, the new adaptation of Stephen King’s horror magnum opus, would continue to dominate the box office in its second week – although even the most generous estimates for its intake couldn’t have foreseen a worldwide gross of $372m in just under two weeks, already making it one of the most profitable films of the year. After a wildly disappointing summer at the box office, wherein profits slumped and attendance hit new lows, IT has offered Hollywood a reprieve of sorts.
Sadly, the same couldn’t be said for Paramount’s latest release, mother! The Darren Aronofsky thriller, which is almost impossible to categorize without spoiling the movie, took in a disappointing $7.5m in its opening weekend, placing it at number three on the box office chart, behind IT and another new release, American Assassin. Most of the headlines swirling around the film this weekend have been related to its damning F rating from CinemaScore, making it one of only a handful of films to receive the dubious honor. It was the worst wide debut for a Jennifer Lawrence film, and conversations continue to swirl around the film’s themes, intent and whether Aronofsky is the best or worst film-maker alive.
The first major problem lies with Paramount’s decision to open the film in as many theatres as it did. Usually, a film of this kind (with potential awards prospects) would receive a more limited run following its festival appearances before increasing its theatre numbers once the buzz was sufficiently built. Instead, mother! opened wide in 2,368 locations, which was a questionable decision at best, but one that makes more sense when you are aware of Paramount’s recent struggles and their eagerness to just keep releasing new films amidst a difficult period.
Part of that hope in the film may have been due to the stars attached. Jennifer Lawrence is a star of major proportions, having headlined a massively popular franchise and played a starring role in another. Javier Bardem doesn’t hold the same kind of clout in America but he’s a major international player. Paramount clearly hoped that audiences would put aside any hesitation in favor of supporting one of the nation’s most beloved actresses. Nowadays, the A-List model of stardom holds little sway, and even the biggest names need franchises or IPs of big-name recognition to guarantee a box office hit.
Something as deliberately challenging as mother! would need more than a big name actor on the posters to get general audiences to put their money down. Many have taken mother! and Lawrence’s previous film Passengers as proof that the star’s power is fading, but that doesn’t provide much context for the realities of the box office. Lawrence didn’t elevate a bizarre and ultra-violent indie parable to box office gold, but it’s hard to think of a star working today who could pull off that feat. It didn’t help that Lawrence had to contend with a ridiculous fabricated story claiming she said the recent hurricanes to hit the US were Mother Nature’s punishment for Donald Trump. Fake news’ ability to hinder box office profits has yet to be quantified, but it’s probably something Paramount will be considering.
While Aronofsky is better known for his indie works, the Oscar nominated director has a history of making money with unlikely projects. The Wrestler made over four times its budget in the US, Black Swan took in over $106m domestically, and he even managed to make his bizarre blockbuster take on Noah an international hit. Aronofsky has always been an abrasive, experimental filmmaker – more focused on sensory experiences than plot, even in his more mainstream efforts. mother! is Aronofsky pushed his most logical conclusion – visceral and mystical and happy to assault the viewers with unnerving images – which was a hard sell to mainstream crowds.
The marketing didn’t help on that front either. For film geeks, mother! had the ultimate promotional campaign: A series of riddles to find in those beautifully painted posters, the challenge of deciphering every frame of the ambiguous trailers, and the strange poem given out to festival-goers after screenings. It’s rare to see a film get this kind of marketing, simply because it’s time-consuming and won’t reach huge crowds. It’s a niche effort, one greatly appreciated by those it’s aimed at but they’re not a big enough demographic to justify the cost.
It’s near impossible to tell what mother! is about, simply by watching the trailers. That’s deliberate, but if you’re not someone who knows Aronofsky’s work or you’re just looking for some Saturday night entertainment, not knowing even the basics of a plot can be off-putting. Obtuse marketing holds no sway for the wider audiences, and this was a film with a wide opening that needed to offer something to them. Even Aronofsky’s weirder movies had a marketable point to them: You know exactly what Black Swan is about once you see the trailers. The same, for better or worse, couldn’t be said for mother!
Any film that inspires the level of fervent debate like that surrounding mother! is certainly one of merit on some level, and while the optics aren’t great for its box office prospects, it can also be read that Paramount took a risk on an experimental and anti-mainstream genre-bending drama. Under different circumstances, a $7.5m opening weekend for a film of this nature would be considered solid, so why not here? Even in negative reviews of the film, critics have encouraged audiences to check out the film and experience the uniqueness of its story and approach. It certainly makes a change from a sea of remakes, franchises and familiar properties. mother! may be able to hold on at the box office in the long-term, as its intended audience takes the time to seek it out and it’s no longer the subject of such scrutiny, and it may be able to hold on for awards season since it remains a critical favourite. It hasn’t been the surprise smash Paramount were hoping for, but in another life, it wouldn’t be a failure.
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