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Box Office: Why ‘Hustlers’ Soared While ‘The Goldfinch’ Flopped

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Although STX’s “Hustlers” and Warner Bros.’ “The Goldfinch” couldn’t be more different in genre and style, the two new releases prove the different ways mid-budget films can go at the box office.

Both films arrived last weekend in an environment that was becoming increasingly hostile to anything other than the kind of superhero or the umpteenth repetition of a longstanding franchise. “Hustlers exceeded expectations with a solid debut of $33.2 million, while The Goldfinch bombed at just $2.68 million. These results are a sobering lesson as studios continue to look for material that will appeal to moviegoers who are not only interested in blockbuster fares. “Hustlers” cost a moderate 20 million dollars to produce, which means the film only had to do modest business to make a profit. “The Goldfinch” had twice as much budget with a price of over 40 million dollars. Amazon co-financed the film, which will help limit the damage, but there is still money to be lost for the studio. The result should not prevent Hollywood companies from dealing with original ideas, but encourage them to re-evaluate how much they invest in such real estate.

“Hustlers” offers a master class in the production of inexpensive counter-programming. Directed by Lorene Scafaria, “Hustlers” is based on Jessica Pressler’s 2015 New York magazine article about professional New York strippers who double-cross their wealthy Wall Street clientele after the 2008 recession. This slogan could easily have lumped “Hustlers” together with Demi Moore’s “Striptease”, “Showgirls” or “Burlesque”, accompanied by stripper dramas that were considered exploitative. Instead, “Hustlers,” which came on screen with outstanding reviews (and even inspired star Jennifer Lopez), was an exciting reversal of expectations and brought a feminist interpretation of a story rooted in the male gaze. Peter Debruge of Variety praised the film and said: “‘Hustlers’ humanizes the women in its center and gives them friends, backgrounds and above all agency. Hustlers” were able to use the zeitgeist in such a way that people felt they had to venture into the theatre to take part in a broader conversation that took place online and in their own social circles.

“Hustlers’ had all the things that make a movie a must,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore. “Reviews played a big role. People who might have rejected this film because of the use of an exploitative hook then read reviews and see that it was a great film.”

“Hustlers” was also a case where the star energy paid off. The women-led ensemble – led by Lopez, Constance Wu, Lili Reinhart, and Keke Palmer – cast its leading actresses in roles in which they appeared to have been born. Lopez embodies Ramona, the fearless leader who is said to have invented the art of pole dancing. Reinhart, best known to the audience for her signature on the CW hit “Riverdale”, showed that she can be a comedic force, while Wu aptly positions herself as the moral center of the film. “The Goldfinch” also boasted of a top-class marquee with Ansel Elgort, Nicole Kidman and Sarah Paulson, but none could capture the same mood.

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And what could have helped the “Hustlers” to their breakthrough could also have been a nail in the coffin for “The Goldfinch”. Despite strong source material, “The Goldfinch” was not able to create a convincing on-screen narrative. Reviews don’t necessarily correlate with cash register performance (just ask for critical favorites like “Booksmart” and “Late Night”), but in the case of “The Goldfinch”, lukewarm feedback and 25% on rotten tomatoes didn’t cause anyone to get off the couch and go to the movies.

“It’s no longer enough to make a decent film,” says Jeff Bock, senior media analyst at Exhibitor Relations. “It must be one of the best movies you’ve seen to really make a dent at the box office if you’re an adult drama.”

Fictions like “The Girl on the Train” and “The Great Gatsby” or even “Brooklyn” used to be robust mines for screen material. But there is a reason why television has become a haven for literary favorites like Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”, Liane Morty’s “Big Little Lies”, Gillian Flynn’s “Sharp Objects” and Caroline Kepnes’ “You”. In contrast to films that are determined by bold concepts, television offers the opportunity to immerse oneself deeply in character development, which is not possible in a story that unfolds within two hours. In addition to the challenges, “The Goldfinch” had a far-reaching narrative that spanned several periods. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel owes much of its success to Donna Tartt’s distinctive voice, which can be a notoriously difficult quality.

“You get salt and pepper on the screen, you get the entire spice booth on television or via streaming,” said Bock. “Something like “The Goldfinch” seems to be perfect for three TV seasons. That’s exactly what adult dramas trying to be integrated into theater-length features find out.”

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