One might think a prominent story that is still relatively fresh would have garnered more attention, but “She Said” was thoroughly scorned.
Last weekend saw the release of “She Said” from Universal studios. It’s the cinematic treatment of the investigation that created the Harvey Weinstein sex scandal and launched the #MeToo movement. The film is based on the best-seller of the same name, written by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, the pair of New York Times reporters who doggedly tracked down the women who would eventually turn on Weinstein and expose his decades of sexual predation.
There is advanced expectations this should be an awards season/Oscar-worthy title. The film features the two reporters prominently, with Twohey played by Carey Mulligan and Zoey Zazan portraying Kantor. The cast is fleshed out with strong names, such as Andre Braugher as executive editor Dean Baquet, and Patricia Clarkson as Rebecca Corbett, the Times’ investigations editor.
Despite the heft and casting, and promise of industry accolades, the film did not perform successfully. In truth, it bombed, in an impressive fashion.
The title was given a significant release on 2,022 screens yet it opened last week in the sixth position on the box office list, earning a paltry $2.25 million. That means it earned just over $1,000 per screen, and once you factor in the number of showings through a weekend it averages out to about 10 people in the seats per screening. That is just dismal for a major release. It stands as one of the worst movie debuts in the post-pandemic years.
So the question is… Why? What led to a prominent motion picture centered on a fresh national news item becoming roundly ignored by audiences to the point of this embarrassing performance? There may be a number of factors at play, but it appears many of the challenges stem from the content itself; specifically, the problems built into the storyline.
The Post-pandemic Movie Market
The Hollywood landscape has shifted significantly since theaters closed for a lengthy duration since the pandemic. As audiences have returned for certain features it appears that some segments of the industry remain affected. Pure escapism and action pics can draw audiences (the latest “Black Panther” has currently earned $300 million, before the Thanksgiving weekend) but independent films struggle to find audiences. Another sector that still suffers is adult-oriented dramas, as that target audience seems to have become accustomed to waiting for titles to arrive at home via streaming. “She Said” holds little appeal for the younger comic book hero fans, and the adults were not lured out for this real-life drama.
The #MeToo Cynicism
After a time of general support for the movement the Weinstein scandal provoked over time it became something generating negative backlash. It began to appear that instead of being a corrective force those spearheading the movement were overreaching and in desperate need of more scalps. Then there was the adjunct organization Time’s Up that drove the coffin nail by falling prey to the very actions it was pledged to halt. Comprised entirely of female executives who were Hollywood types and names from the journalism industry, Time’s Up became embroiled in its own sex scandals when males were reported to have been sexually harassing women, and the organization defended the men because they were influential to group.
The Journalism Industry
A studio is facing an uphill battle when it features the work of two reporters, attempting to paint them as heroic in a climate where the general public is outwardly dismissive of journalism. Following the way the media behaved during the pandemic the general population holds journalism in very low regard. Trust in journalism according to polls is nearing record lows, and even those in the industry have a sense of this reality. Casting reporters in a heroic light will not draw a crowd these days.
The Hollywood Dodge
Possibly the biggest repellant for this feature was the fact that it was a Hollywood production about a Hollywood scandal. Specifically, it was a scandal because this very industry abetted Weinstein’s rapist activities. Think back to when we first began hearing about the producer’s rape allegations and how many in Hollywood were saying that Weinstein’s predations were an open secret in the town. In the trailer, you even hear one character say, bitterly, “This is bigger than Weinstein – this is about the system protecting abusers.” It becomes a tough sell when the people in that very system now try selling their noble stance against its decades of permissiveness.
The Culpability of the New York Times
Adding to the buyer’s resistance is more of that protection of the abuser Harvey Weinstein – enacted by the New York Times. The very same paper that is attempting to lionize itself for bringing down the movie titan is just as guilty for shielding the man. The paper had been given this story about Harvey’s rapist tendencies more than a decade earlier, but instead of going after the man, it worked instead on his behalf of him, permitting him to continue his rapacious ways.
Entertainment publisher Sharon Waxman runs The Wrap, a Hollywood trade publication, but in another era, she was a reporter at The Times. In 2004 Waxman investigated Weinstein’s preying behavior in his company’s European units, but she soon faced resistance from all sides. Harvey went to the paper and threatened to pull advertising as Waxman herself received calls from Hollywood stars defending the studio head and pleading with her to bury the story. Ultimately the times neutered her sexual content and buried her report deep in the paper. Nothing further came of the story.
With so much delusion and permissiveness seen from those now delivering a “heroic” tale, it becomes a tough sell when the heroes of the film are overcoming the forces of the very entities delivering the story. The cynical underpinnings behind “She Said” were very evident, and audiences were not buying the advertising. Looking at the numbers they certainly were not buying tickets to the revisionist storyline.
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