The ‘Booksmart’ Conundrum: Are Women Not Allowed to Fail?

Last weekend, Olivia Wilde took to Twitter with a plea. Her directorial debut, “Booksmart,” a coming-of-age critics’ darling about two teenage girls determined to get their party on, was stumbling at the box office while audiences flocked to Disney’s live-action “Aladdin.”

“Booksmart” seemed to have the ingredients for success: festival buzz, a sky-high Rotten Tomatoes rating, and loads of raunchy sex gags that were made, for once, by young women — about themselves. But as it became clear that the comedy, from Annapurna Films, was falling short at the box office (it wound up taking in just $8.7 million over the weekend despite a wide release on 2,500 screens), Wilde tried to gin up ticket buyers with a tweet, writing, in part, “Don’t give studios an excuse not to green-light movies made by and about women.”

Anyone out there saving @Booksmart for another day, consider making that day TODAY. We are getting creamed by the big dogs out there and need your support. Don’t give studios an excuse not to green-light movies made by and about women. ?❤️?

She ended up setting off a 48-hour Twitter controversy that went in an altogether different direction. A Vanity Fair writer tweeted that the fact that filmgoers were choosing the Guy Ritchie-directed “Aladdin” over “Booksmart” pained her deeply. Detractors replied that pitting “Booksmart” against a Disney movie with people of color in lead roles was problematic and unfair. By Tuesday, criticism abounded about the distributor’s decision to open an R-rated film with no big names and a first-time director against a Disney juggernaut on a holiday weekend.

But Wilde’s message revealed an all-too-real fear shared by female directors, and it’s worth asking, as the film heads into its crucial second weekend: In 2019, are women still not allowed to fail?

“The reality is the number of women directing the top movies is still low,” said Kirsten Schaffer, executive director of the advocacy group Women in Film. “Until that number is higher, I think individual women are judged more harshly.”

Despite pushes for more gender balance in Hollywood, the number of films by and about women has stagnated in recent years. Women made up fewer than a third of protagonists and directed fewer than 4 percent of the top films in 2018. Out of dozens of films the major studios are releasing through the end of the year, a fraction have female directors. Women also face far bigger hurdles in making follow-up films. Before the 2017 blockbuster “Wonder Woman,” Patti Jenkins’s last feature was the 2003 “Monster.”

Still, there are signs of a shift. The number of studio films directed by women and scheduled for release in 2019 may be low — according to The Wrap, 18 percent of movies from the six top studios this year have a female director — but it is nonetheless a record. And, in a break from the past, several women have recently gone from directing independent films to big-budget features in a few short years.

After directing the 2015 “Diary of a Teenage Girl,” Marielle Heller was hired to make last year’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” with Melissa McCarthy, and the coming “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers. Anna Boden, with her husband Ryan Fleck, was asked to direct this year’s megahit “Captain Marvel,” in 2017, two years after the release of their “Mississippi Grind.” Chloé Zhao has gone from the beloved 2018 indie “The Rider,” to Marvel’s forthcoming “The Eternals,” the kind of dizzying career trajectory usually only enjoyed by men.

All those filmmakers shared a few things in common with Wilde. The films that put them on the map were critical darlings that enjoyed Rotten Tomatoes approval ratings in the 90s. They also barely registered at the box office. “Diary” made just $1.4 million. “Mississippi Grind” tanked with $130,000, despite starring Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn. The best performer of the three was “The Rider,” which made $2.4 million.

Jeff Bock, a senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations, a box office tracking company, predicted that “Booksmart’s” results notwithstanding, the adulation of the film will have given Wilde “the golden ticket.”

“This is exactly the kind of movie that makes your career,” Bock said. “All the right people are loving it. Critics are loving it. Studio executives are loving it. This is the kind of film they want in their catalog.” He would not be surprised, he added, if Wilde was asked to direct a Disney or Marvel film.

It is also early to deem “Booksmart” a flop. Paul Dergarabedian, the senior media analyst for the box office tracker Comscore, said second-weekend ticket sales could provide a turnaround. He also noted that the film “Brightburn,” which had a male director and starred Elizabeth Banks, also opened to tepid box office without generating a fuss.

Indeed, “Booksmart’s” performance might not have drawn so much attention if Wilde — whose representatives did not respond to a request for comment — had not taken her disappointment to Twitter in the first place. Then again, other celebrities followed Wilde’s lead, among them Ryan Reynolds, Mindy Kaling and Taylor Swift, urging followers on Twitter and Instagram to see the film. By midweek, the film was over-performing in the market, according to Erik Lomis of United Artist Releasing, which distributes Annapurna Films.

Lomis said they wanted to get the movie out before high school graduation season, and release it wide to reach as many viewers as possible. “We love the movie, we have a lot of faith in the movie,” he said. “And I think it’s premature to call it when it’s just getting started.”

All of which may or may not allay Wilde’s fears about failing while female and getting a second shake. (She did acknowledge on Twitter that getting such a wild release was a privilege.) Schaffer, the Women in Film executive, said, “I want to believe we’re not in that moment anymore, but I think we still are.”

Cara Buckley is a culture reporter who covers bias and equity in Hollywood, and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for reporting on workplace sexual harassment. @caraNYT Facebook

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