Oh, A24, those mischievous bastards have done it again. They’ve ridden the horror movie hype train straight into box office glory and near-instantaneous pushback. Hereditary delivered both their biggest opening weekend of all time ($13m) and one of the worst CinemaScore grades of their brief existence (D+). It’s almost like promising the general public one new horror classic after another and then force-feeding them a challenging art-house movie is a recipe for frustration and divisive audience response.
But, wait, what’s a CinemaScore? What’s Hereditary? What’s A24? And what’s a movie?
Well, I’m calling bullshit on that last part. You obviously know what a movie is. You might even know the answers to all those other questions, but for those who don’t here’s a quick explainer:
CinemaScore is a simple exit-polling service Hollywood has contracted out to since 1978. In multiple major cities around the country, pollsters, preferably working in pairs but sometimes going it alone, are dispatched to selected movie theaters every Friday evening. In fact, CinemaScore is currently looking for more pollsters in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Here’s the job listing:
“This simply entails handing each moviegoer a small (pocket-sized ) rating ballot as they enter the auditorium, and collecting the ballots from the moviegoers at the end of the movie (no pencils required!) Results are then entered into an iPad and then sent to our head office that evening. Most pollsters start around 6:30pm (depending on what time the film begins), and finish after they collect the ballots at the end of the movie and enter results.”
That “pocket-sized” rating ballot, pictured above, asks the respondent to assign the film a letter grade on an A-F scale. CinemaScore then tallies up the survey responses and comes to a final letter grade. In the past, that grade was shared exclusively with the studios and trade publications; now, the grade is freely available on their website. Incidentally, they’ve somewhat recently added a search functionality, thus enabling you to not only look up the CinemaScore for all films currently in theaters but also for every film in their database, new or old.
It’s easy to think of this as an analog ancestor to RottenTomatoes’ Audience Score. After all, both services are motivated by the same impulse to democratize film criticism and provide a snapshot of what audiences, not just film reviewers, actually think of a movie. However, as Collider explained earlier this year, there are crucial differences:
For starters, CinemaScore only does polling on a movie on its opening night. That means that if you’re not seeing a movie on its opening night, your opinion isn’t counted. So it’s a selective sample size of people who are interested enough in a movie to see it on its opening night as opposed to constantly taking the input of everyone. Additionally, CinemaScore is going out into the world and conducting a poll rather than just letting everyone submit a grade through an online tool.
This exclusive focus on a film’s opening night, a time when word-of-mouth is still being generated, also means CinemaScore is less a measurement of audience response and more an assessment of “how a film’s marketing lines up with audience expectations.” It’s not so much, “Did you like it?” as it is “Is this the film you thought you were getting based on the trailers?”
In the case of Hereditary, this is the film the trailers promised:
Oh, the creepy girl with the tongue-click thing, the kid looking at his own evil reflection, Toni Collette sculpting weird miniatures and doing her own version of the Emily Blunt-in-A-Quiet-Place scream, Ann Dowd being, well, Ann Dowd, mind-fuck imagery galore, someone on fire!, hyperbolic pull-quotes from film reviewers who went crazy for the movie at Sundance…
YES! Yes to all of that. Bring it on, Hereditary. Give me your Exorcist meets The Conjuring or whatever. I want to be scare…
[Cut to 15 minutes into the movie]
Huh. So, this is actually a family drama?
[Cut to 30 minutes into the movie]
I feel like my soul has just had red paint thrown over it by some protester shouting, “Down with commercial horror movies! Up with Peter Greenaway-inspired misanthropy!”
[Cut to an hour into the movie]
There is no hope left in this cruel, cruel world. Also, Toni Collette deserves all the awards.
[Cut to 30 minutes later]
So, I guess the horror movie stuff is finally starting now.
[Cut to the end of the movie]
What the hell was that?
Of course, that last part, to take a page from Seinfeld, can go either way depending on which word you emphasize. If you’re left wondering “What the hell was that?” you didn’t like it and you want your money back; if, instead, you exclaim “What the hell was that?” you were blown away by what you just saw and it will haunt your dreams for weeks to come.
When there are far more people in the former category than latter, that’s how you get a D+ CinemaScore.
In response to that D+, Variety and The Hollywood Reporter have each put forth their own critical analyses, arguing, essentially, some moviegoers are too stupid for Hereditary. Oh, neither of them ever say that, but it feels like they really, really want to.
But it’s not even that complicated. This is a simple matter of reality not meeting expectations. Through a misleading trailer and a hype campaign begun at the Sundance Film Festival, A24 managed to build a massive amount of buzz for Hereditary, but the film’s art-house leanings have always destined it to be a niche player at the box office. “The new classic” and “as good as The Exorcist” overpraise from critics didn’t help.
People keep falling for this same trick.
See also: It Comes At Night, The Witch.
In its short life, A24, a mini-major established by industry veterans Daniel Katz, David Fenkel, and John Hodges, has been an active buyer on the film festival circuit, allowing it to average 12 new releases a year. Unlike Blumhouse, it is not exclusively tied to micro-budgets or the horror genre. Heck, it distributed Lady Bird last year and Moonlight the year before that, and it first really made a name for itself with Ex Machina in 2015.
Still, A24 has definitely settled on a formula for its horror offerings. If Blumhouse is the place where commercially-inclined newbies or industry-scarred veterans with something to prove can go to play, A24 caters to first-time filmmakers with far more experimental leanings and eclectic inspirations.
Robert Eggers, a former designer and theater director, used Ingmar Bergman, Stanley Kubrick, and oft-forgotten silent filmmaker Benjamin Christensen as inspiration for his debut feature The Witch. Trey Edward Shults, who’d only made one micro-budget movie before It Comes At Night, penned his film as a therapeutic exercise after losing his father. He looked to The Shining and more modern movies like Children of Men and Take Shelter as cinematic models for his moody, paranoid take on the apparent end of the world.
Similarly, Hereditary’s Ari Aster used his film as therapy and gravitated toward films outside the horror genre for inspiration. He didn’t make his cast and crew watch Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist or any of the recent run of haunted house movies. Instead, he made them watch Mike Leigh’s All or Nothing, a 2002 ensemble film about working-class families, and he deeply studied Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, Fellini’s 8 ½, and Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years. More than anything, he thought back to how psychologically scarred he was after watching Peter Greenaway’s cannibalistic revenge drama The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (pictured below) as a 10-year-old and aimed to visit that same feeling to a new generation.
But, you’ve got to pay the bills somehow. So, A24 keeps taking the very few minutes of actual horror material in these slow-burns and cramming them into misleading trailers:
The result? Pissed off audiences and comically low CinemaScore grades. D+ for Hereditary, D for It Comes at Night, and C- for The Witch.
The box office returns are far more mixed. The Witch posted a great-for-horror 2.85 multiplier, rising from an $8m opening to a final domestic tally of $25m, a new high for A24 at the time. It Comes At Night, on the other hand, made less than half of that and was dropped from two-thirds of all theaters by its third weekend.
Plus, to a great many the A24 art-house horror films and similar efforts from competitors (like Radius’ It Follows or IFC’s The Babadook) has helped initiate a new horror renaissance, a time when more conventionally-entertaining horror blockbusters like It can happily co-exist with more cerebral efforts. As Time Magazine recently argued, “Hereditary is among the films forming the swell of a new wave in horror, pictures that are smart, subtle and artfully made.”
With horror enjoying one of its most lucrative periods of all time that means audiences of all kinds are being pulled into each new trendy horror pick, but not all of these movies have real mass-appeal. That’s how you get Owen Gleiberman describing his Hereditary-viewing experience as being regularly interrupted by around a third of the audience being actively hostile toward the film: “laughing, jeering, incredulous.” I noticed the same thing at my Hereditary screening just as I did with It Comes At Night last year and The Witch the year before that.
So, Hereditary got a D+ CinemaScore? It’d be more shocking if it got anything higher than a C.