Why Did ‘The Goldfinch’ Fail While ‘Hustlers’ Succeeded?

If you’ve been paying attention to the upcoming movies for 2019 since the beginning of the year, this last weekend surely would have blindsided you.  First you have The Goldfinch (2019), one of the year’s on-paper must-see Oscar movies, flopping hard at the box office.  In fact, despite its high-profile release and generally lean competition, it debuted at only number eight for the weekend: not even the best-performing new release that came out over the last so many days.  Among other things, it lost out to It: Chapter 2 (although, honestly, that never should have come as a surprise to anybody), Angel Has Fallen, Good Boys, The Lion King, Hobbs & Shaw and even the lackluster Christian drama Overcomer.  All of that hype, all of that media attention, all of that momentum coming into its opening weekend, and all it could manage was a measly $2.6 million opening.

The other surprise this weekend came in the form of Hustlers: which was The Goldfinch’s only new competition and something that was hardly on anybody’s radar going into it – at least, not compared to The Goldfinch’s seeming omnipresence.  This Recession-era drama saw Jennifer Lopez of all people as a stripper (one of several) ripping off CEOs and getting away scott free.  It soared to the tune of more than $33 million, an astronomical sum for an adult-oriented drama, especially when some of the Summer’s top performers are still rattling around in theaters across the country.  It defied the (quite frankly incorrect) logic that women-centered movies simply don’t perform at the box office (disproven time and time again) and that women of a certain age are not box office draws (they most certainly can be).

The differences between these two movies couldn’t be more nakedly stark than they already are.  The first movie is a sprawling, Dickensian epic of sorts: setting a broken young man against a world he doesn’t quite manage to fit into.  The latter is a bombastic, thoroughly modern film about bombastic, thoroughly modern women taking on a world of white male privilege.  One is cold and distant while the other is easily accessible.  One is constantly tripping over itself in order to tell its story (perhaps as a consequence of its literary origins) while the other is lean and mean and clean at every level of storytelling.  One had a cryptic, confusing trailer that obfuscated any semblance of what it was about, so that only the literarily initiated could parse through its characters and story while the other was open and direct to its audience about what (and about who) it was all about.

On its surface, this is a clear example of poor versus good advertising: being able to honestly sell your movie on its merits rather than trying to shield the truth of the matter behind some kind of narrative curtain: pull too far away from your core audience, withhold too much of your elevator pitch from them, and they will simply lose interest and move on.  Moviegoers need something to hold onto to ground themselves in your sales pitch, and clearly The Goldfinch wasn’t doing it for them.

Certainly this wasn’t helped by what I can only imagine was a desperate short of the film’s own release to preemptively stave off the poor performance come Monday morning.  Come Friday morning, my 8:30 PM screening had been changed to 9:00 AM: a time, mind you, when the theater wasn’t even open to the public.  When I went to try to fix whatever presumably glitched in the system, it turned out that every one of the screenings at that theater had been removed (all within the last 24 hours).

But that, I think, can hardly be the entire story.  Perhaps if it was just a matter of The Goldfinch flopping, sure, I would get that, but that’s only half of what happened.  It stumbled right out of the gate, yes, but Hustlers simultaneously took off like a rocket, suggesting that early fall adult dramas were in high demand, and that some other confounding variable has to be at play here in order to explain what actually happened this weekend.

The simple fact of the matter is that these movies performed so differently because of the kinds of characters that were at the center of them.  The Goldfinch was about a sad white guy pining endlessly at a pricey painting – variations of which we’ve seen countless times before already – and Hustlers is about a group of working class women (mostly women of color) trying to make ends meat in a hard world that’s not predisposed to cut them a break.  And – surprise, surprise – that audience showed up for the good movie about something different, whereas the sad whiteboy audience stayed home and waited for Joker (which at least looks like a much better version of this basic type of movie).

Take this as a lesson, Hollywood.  White is no longer the cinematic default and audiences are hungry for something different: something a little more colorful and a little more reflective of the world outside of their doors.  Give us more Hustlers!

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