Ava DuVernay knew A Wrinkle in Time wasn’t going to be the movie to push T’Challa from the box office throne, and she was right. Wrinkle in Time, the first film with a budget of $100 million or above to be directed by a black woman, grossed $33m this weekend to Black Panther’s $40.9m.
Upside: The top two films at the box office right now were directed by people of color.
Downside: Unless it has a near-historic Jumanji/Greatest Showman-like run in it, Wrinkle in Time’s $33m opening is not really big enough for a movie that cost that much to make and market.
Here’s Forbes’ breakdown of what might be in store for Wrinkle:
If it’s lucky, it’ll leg it out like the other March Disney biggies (Alice in Wonderland, Oz: The Great and Powerful, etc.) and make it to $97m domestic. If it’s not lucky, it’ll flameout like Where the Wild Things Are which snagged a $32m debut weekend but then ended with just $77m domestic in late 2009. But with a B CinemaScore, a 3.2x multiplier (not great for a leggy kid flick) and mediocre reviews, well, let’s hope for the best…
Another obvious comp: Tomorrowland, Brad Bird’s similarly teen girl-led, let’s save the world through sheer optimism romp that opened to $32m, a B CinemaScore, and legged it to just $93m domestic. Tomorrowland also cost nearly twice as much to make as Wrinkle, though ($190m versus $103m budget), and only ever made it to $200m worldwide. So, it could be worse.
How will Wrinkle fare overseas? It’s going to be a minute before we find out. A somewhat slow international roll-out is planned all the way through the end of April, and the early returns aren’t exactly encouraging. Wrinkle grossed just south of $7m from a handful of countries this weekend, with Russia being the biggest of the bunch.
For now, Wrinkle is a disappointment, both financially and critically (poor reviews, low audience approval, mediocre CinemaScore grade from opening night audiences). It’s a multicultural, less overtly Christian-leaning version of Madeleine L’Engle’s novel, and it plays like a repeat of Tomorrowland’s admirable, but hard-to-market ethos instead of a more conventional action-adventure narrative.
But, but, but….
It is led by a young black girl (Storm Reid) and more or less features Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling as demigods under Oprah’s beaming God. It was co-written by the same woman, Jennifer Lee, who wrote and co-directed Frozen. Plus, Chris Pine, Michael Pena, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Filipino child actor Deric McCabe are in it. Not quite the full diversity rainbow, sure, but it’s as close as any movie has come in recent memory.
That in and of itself, however, does not a good movie or big hit make. Diversity sells at the box office, but you know what sells even better these days? Brands, sequels, and superhero movies. Wrinkle in Time technically ticks one of those boxes, since it is based on a book, but so are Alice in Wonderland, Oz: The Great and Powerful, Where the Wild Things Are, John Carter, Ender’s Game, and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Four of those movies are among the bigger money losers in recent memory. Having a built-in audience of book readers only goes so far, particularly if the book (or book series) in question is so old most kids haven’t heard of it.
You would think Wrinkle, however, has another brand at its disposable, namely Disney. That is true, but we forget how fallible Disney is when it’s not focused on Marvel, Star Wars, animation, or live action adaptations of animated classics.
Their attempts to recreate the success of Pirates of the Caribbean led to whiffs like Prince of Persia, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, John Carter and The Lone Ranger. Non-IP like Finest Hours and Queen Of Katwe stumbled in 2016. When you discuss big-budget, live-action would-be franchises, they haven’t had a huge non-sequel hit not based on one of their animated flicks since National Treasure in 2004.
Thanks to Marvel and the rest, Disney is just more able to weather those kinds of losses than their competitors at Universal, WB, and Fox. In this particular case, though, Disney is its own competition since it is Black Panther’s continued historic run which can be partially blamed for kneecapping Wrinkle’s opening.
DuVernay saw that coming, telling the New York Times in an interview last week, “I’ll tell you right now. We are not going to be No. 1 this weekend because there is a cultural movement that is so important to me and so many people called Black Panther, and it is still moving and breathing in the world. I am not crying over spilt milk.”
Disney tried its best to have Wrinkle piggyback off of Black Panther’s success. For example, a special Wrinkle in Time production video was attached to all opening-weekend screenings of Black Panther, which gave Disney a direct line to the largest share of black people to ever see a superhero movie. The video is decidedly light on plot details. Instead, it is a glossy collection of making-of moments accompanied by talking head segments which play the “inclusion” card very, very hard with an extra emphasis on DuVernay’s leadership and vision.
Here you are, Black Panther fans: a proud reminder that a black woman is the first to do something white dudes have been allowed to do for decades, and she’s absolutely killing it. Don’t you want to show up to support that?
How did that work out for them?
Contrast that with Black Panther‘s marketing which never really leaned into the political or social messaging of the film or production and instead pitched what looked like a really good Marvel movie that happened to feature an entirely black cast + Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis.
Truthfully, the “we need to support diversity-oriented movies if we ever expect to see more of them” movement is often at odds with the “I’m not seeing it if RottenTomatoes says it sucks” contingent. We have seen this time and time again now. Heck, even sometimes when RT does offer its a stamp of approval, as was the case with the female-directed, black-led Detroit, audiences still don’t show up.
On top of that, even Disney has struggled in recent years when trying to push anything not preceded by the Marvel, LucasFilm, Pixar, or Disney Animation Studios label, and the other studios have similarly struck out while trying to make money on fantasy adventure stories (Jack the Giant Slayer, anyone?). Why, really, should Wrinkle‘s rough start be that surprising?
DeVernay, in her Times interview, expressed the healthiest view on this: “As an artist, I can’t be concerned with the first three days at the box office.” If the work is good enough, it will find its audience, even if that doesn’t happen until after it has left theaters.
Disney, however, isn’t quite as free to be so disinterested in a film’s first three days.
Then again, Black Panther did just cross a billion globally. When that’s the world you live in, missing on Wrinkle in Time isn’t going to throw too big of a, ahem, wrinkle into your quarterly profits.