It all goes to show that art and entertainment is subjective that this viewer vastly prefers a less successful romantic comedy playing in Salem to a markedly more successful one. But the history of the two movies also suggests that indicators that don’t always predict quality may unduly influence critics and movie industry insiders.
At this point Love and Friendship, 2016, a costume comedy based on an early Jane Austin novel and directed by Whit Stillman is doing a credible job as a small commercial art film. Meanwhile Maggie’s Plan, 2016, written and directed by Rebecca Miller is both an arguably superior film and a comparative failure.
Box office receipts find Jane Austin solidly outperforming Miller and show that the film industry expected it to. Released May 13 (limited) and June 3 (wide), Love & Friendship has brought in (an estimated) $11 million in 6 weekends according to Box Office Mojo, the leading online box office reporting service. At its height “Love” showed in more than 800 theaters for two weeks running. This last weekend it was shown in nearly 500, including the Regal Santiam in Salem, where it is playing now.
In contrast, Maggie’s Plan, released one week later, has been shown at smaller theaters such as the Salem Cinema, where it is playing now, and brought in only (an estimated) total of $1.8 million. At its peak, (this weekend) distribution is in only 335 theaters.
Critics also preferred Love and Friendship, a film this viewer found lurching and uncinematic. They were only lukewarm on “Maggie,” an original and surprising story.
Why would distributors and critics prefer a lesser work? My theory comes later.
An indispensible aid for those that love movies is Metacritic, the online distillation of published critic reviews. Metacritic not only runs reviews from sources such as Rolling Stone, the Hollywood Reporter and Slate, it also creates a numerical score from 1 – 100 for each review and a weighted overall ‘metascore’ for each film.
With the highest metascore available, “Universal Acclaim,” Love and Friendship received an 87 overall rating. It was scored at 100 (of 100) by seven critics, the most prestigious being the Los Angles Times, the New York Post, the Village Voice and the Telegraph.
“It’s flat out hilarious,” says Tim Robey of The Telegraph. “Never before,” says Alan Scherstuhl of Village Voice, has one of filmmaker Stillman’s films been “so crisp, so tart, so laugh-out-loud funny.”
Meanwhile Metacritic allowed Maggie’s Plan only a quieter, “Generally Favorable” metascore of 76. The top 5 reviews of the film didn’t include a single 100, but were in the 88 to 91 range.
One conjecture about why both distributers and critics favored Love & Friendship may be that it is British, it is “Jane Austin” and it has all the ornate settings, posh costumes and witty repartee of 19th Century England, which modern people often associate with class, sophistication and quality. At a glance it might be mistaken for another of numerous successful adaptations of Austin’s Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility or Emma. It might be considered an easy sell for viewers of Downton Abbey.
But a movie’s broad resemblance to other works does not make it equal to them. Putting eggs into a familiar-seeming basket is a yearly error made by Hollywood, as the deadly underperformance of many sure-fire hits such as Batman V Superman (2016 shows.)
Back in the world of Salem romantic comedies, there are some signs of vindication for viewers like me; Love & Friendship’s first success has plummeted in recent weeks, including by 11.3 % its fifth week even though the number of theaters showing it jumped from 493 to 819 weekend (not that any film lover would wish a movie ill).
But in heartening contrast, Maggie’s Plan, disabled though it was by tepid reviews and scant distribution, has grossed consistently better each week of its release, with a projected drop this last weekend that may not actually happen if its upward trend is considered.
And right here in town, audiences are crammed into Salem Cinema’s auditorium to see Maggie’s Plan; out at the Santiam, a handful of people occupy a space five times larger.
It all goes to show there may be justice in the marketplace after all, and that relying on insiders like reviewers and entertainment industry executives who make distribution decisions can be a fool’s game.