Olivia Wilde's directorial debut Booksmart, a comedy about two young women making the most of their last day of high school, received much praise from critics and a lot of love online. Unfortunately, the overwhelmingly positive response didn't translate to blockbuster ticket sales. Booksmart struggled in the box office, making below $9 million during its four-day Memorial Day weekend opening and just over $24 million overall. But Wilde has always had bigger (and longer term) things in mind for the movie. She wants Booksmart to be a movie that fans rewatch and share with their friends.
"I fell in love with so many movies after they left the theaters," Wilde says, speaking over the phone about some timeless teen classics. "I didn't see The Breakfast Club in theaters; I didn't see Ferris Bueller in theaters; I didn't see Fast Times in theaters. I don't even know if I actually saw Clueless in theaters."
All of the movies she mentions are pop culture mainstays that are beloved by millions of fans who weren't even old enough — or alive — to see them in their first release. They're all fun and relatable — feel-good go-tos for slumber parties. And Booksmart — with the way so many fans feel that it speaks to their own friendships and high school experiences — is well on its way to becoming a sleepover staple.
"I think the best part is people telling me that they feel seen. That's something that I think every storyteller is hoping for," Wilde says. She's especially been blown away that those tweeting about how much they can relate to the film are of a wide range of ages and gender identities. "It's interesting that the more specific you make something, the more personal you make something, actually the more universal it becomes."
Hopefully, with Booksmart out on digital, DVD, and Blu-ray now, the film's message will resonate with even more people, as it becomes more easily accessible. And Wilde loves picturing what that could mean for fans and future fans of the film.
"A group of friends who can sit around and reflect on their own friendships and their own high school experiences — it really brings me a lot of joy to imagine them doing that," the director says. "That is what's exciting about these types of releases. It sort of democratizes the project and the process."
Still, when Booksmart was struggling against some higher profile films its first weekend, Wilde tweeted out a plea for support via ticket sales. "There's no real science to the box office," she says now. "If there was, then we would study it and perfect it and, you know, it wouldn't be as much of a gamble as it is." Even so, Booksmart's performance ignited a conversation about the high standards that films by female filmmakers are held to.
"Studios are still warming up to the idea of green-lighting female-led, female-generated, female-directed content, because for many years the paradigm was set as a male-dominated industry, and that has allowed for many generations of box office reports to show male-generated content doing very well at the box office, because there's just been simply more male-generated content," she sums up.
This is something that documentarian Amy Adrion fleshes out in her 2018 film Half the Picture. According to LA Weekly, 50 percent of film school graduates are women. But female directors are often not trusted by studios to deliver box office returns and thereby limited to projects with small budgets. "It’s when money gets involved that women start to get pushed out of the system," Adrion told Harper's Bazaar.
This is why, though Booksmart didn't set theaters on fire, Wilde still sees ticket sales are a hugely important metric when it comes to parity. As she points out, it's films like this year's Captain Marvel that prove that movies with stories centered around female protagonists can succeed in a big, mainstream way.
"And then there's the upcoming movie Hustlers — I hope they break every record all over the place because we all benefit from these movies doing well," she says of Lorene Scafaria's stripper/scammer dramedy, premiering Sept. 13. "It means that a studio will take a gamble on another female director."