‘Bros’ Fails at the Box Office, as ‘Smile’ Arrives at No. 1

‘Bros’ Fails at the Box Office, as ‘Smile’ Arrives at No. 1

There is no easy way to say it: When the reviews are this sensational, the marketing support is this substantive and the theatrical footprint is this wide — and ticket sales are nonetheless this low — it suggests outright marketplace rejection.

“Bros,” the first gay romantic comedy from a major studio, arrived to an estimated $4.8 million in ticket sales in the United States and Canada, about 40 percent less than the low end of prerelease analyst expectations. Universal Pictures booked “Bros” onto 3,350 screens and spent an estimated $30 million to $40 million to promote it. “Bros,” starring Luke Macfarlane and Billy Eichner, who also co-wrote the script, cost roughly $22 million to make. It received mostly positive reviews.

Yet it was a distant fourth at the weekend box office. “We’ll see where we go from here,” Jim Orr, Universal’s president of domestic distribution, said by phone on Sunday. “We’re incredibly proud of the film, and I really believe there is going to be great word of mouth.”

“Smile,” a new horror movie from Paramount Pictures that cost an estimated $17 million to make, was No. 1 at North American theaters, with ticket sales between Thursday night and Sunday of about $22 million. “Smile” received strong reviews. “This is an excellent opening, the kind that launches a new horror series,” David A. Gross, who runs Franchise Entertainment Research, a film consultancy, said in an email.

In its second weekend, “Don’t Worry Darling” (Warner Bros.) was second, collecting roughly $7.3 million, for a total of $32.8 million. In its third weekend, “The Woman King” (Sony) was third, selling about $7 million in tickets, for a cumulative $46.7 million.

Universal’s marketing campaign for “Bros” started in May and emphasized its comedic bona fides; producers included Judd Apatow, the force behind hits like “Trainwreck” and “Bridesmaids,” and Nicholas Stoller, known for “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Mr. Stoller also directed “Bros” and co-wrote the script. In August and September, Universal brought “Bros” to film festivals and screened exclusive footage in cities across the United States. Mr. Eichner aggressively promoted the movie, appearing on almost every major talk show and reviving his popular “Billy on the Street” comedy series.

Going into the weekend, stars like Chris Evans, Seth Rogen and Mariah Carey pleaded with people on Twitter to buy tickets for “Bros.”

Movies struggle to find a theatrical audience all the time. But the R-rated “Bros” was heavily promoted as historic — a first for mass-market, studio-driven cinema because it focuses on love and sex between two men. It featured an all-L.G.B.T.Q. principal cast. There is the possibility that studios, in their risk-averse way, will now point to the disappointing results for “Bros” as justification for passing on other theatrical films with L.G.B.T.Q. relationships in the forefront.

What went wrong in this case? In going after the widest audience possible, “Bros” may have fallen into a marketplace nether world — too straight for gay audiences, and too gay for straight ones, some analysts posited. Several longtime film distribution executives noted that Eichner can be polarizing as a comedic personality and his star power, at least on movie theater marquees, is minimal. And, of course, homophobia cannot be ruled out.

Gross, the film consultant, noted that romantic comedies of all kinds have struggled at the box office in recent years. The genre now mostly lives on streaming services. Studios have released 40 rom-coms in theaters over the last decade (four per year), compared to 212 during the 15 years before that (14 per year).

Universal will try again on Oct. 21, when it releases “Ticket to Paradise,” a romantic comedy starring Julia Roberts and George Clooney.

Several films found a theatrical audience in September — “The Woman King” among them — but moviegoing is still struggling to recover from the coronavirus pandemic. In September, the domestic box office was down 54 percent compared with September 2019, Gross said.

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