The Toronto Film Festival is the springboard for movies with Oscar aspirations. The last six Best Picture winners played in Toronto, so when the festival named The Fifth Estate its opening-night premiere, people assumed that Bill Condon’s WikiLeaks movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the frosty Julian Assange was a bona fide Oscar contender. Condon has an Oscar pedigree (Gods and Monsters), Assange is a mysterious, polarizing figure who remains in the headlines, and Cumberbatch is an on-the-verge actor with a passionate fanbase. The Fifth Estate had all the makings of another Toronto success story, like Argo or Silver Linings Playbook.
But The Fifth Estate stumbled out of the gate with a lukewarm reception in Toronto, and that verdict was nothing compared to the giant collective yawn that awaited the film upon its opening weekend. Critics were unkind, but nowhere near as callous as the paying public. Playing in more than 1,700 theaters, DreamWorks’ cyber-thriller earned just $1.7 million, making it one of the limpest opening weekends of any wide release this year. Paranoia, the Harrison Ford/Gary Oldman corporate espionage stinker, performed better. As did Movie 43, the star-studded comedy anthology designed to make The Kentucky Fried Movie look like Casablanca. Not the neighborhood any movie wants to find itself, much less one with such high hopes.
“We’re certainly disappointed by the results,” Dave Hollis, Disney’s distribution chief, told Variety, “and we’re still trying to figure out the ‘whys.’”
When it comes to the “whys,” there are many, starting with the critical verdict that the film just wasn’t up to snuff. A film like The Fifth Estate can’t afford to be mediocre, and it needs that fall film-festival bounce. The American public is somewhat familiar with Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, but not everyone is up to speed on the website’s M.O. and the squirrelly guy who runs it. (Even professional news organizations struggled to wrap the ongoing story up neatly for the public.) To get them to the theater, people need to be told they can’t afford to miss it. Instead, beginning a month ago in Toronto and culminating with this week’s unenthusiastic reviews, audiences were essentially told that the movie was a dud.
But it was more than just the critics. Disney and DreamWorks opened the movie in 1,769 theaters, which sounds like a decent number, but in industry speak, it’s no-man’s land. Fall-festival favorites with Oscar ambitions typically open small and gain steam — like 12 Years a Slave hopes to do after opening in 18 theaters last weekend — or they open wide with a huge splash around the holidays. It’s extremely rare for a film to split the difference (though, to be fair, Flight pulled it off last November with flying colors). After the Fifth Estate‘s underwhelming showing in Toronto, its studios may not have known what it had on its hands and tried to hedge its bets.
Since I mentioned Flight above, it’s also worth noting that that movie starred Denzel Washington, an actor with a stellar box-office track record. As popular as Cumberbatch is because of his roles in TV’s Sherlock and in the recent Star Trek movie, we now know he’s not yet someone who can carry a movie. In fact, it will be interesting to see if the stench of Fifth Estate sticks to him in any way moving forward. And might it hinder his Oscar chances for his two other promising movies: 12 Years and August: Osage County?
I suspect that he will be spared this season, just as most critics found something interesting and redeeming in his portrayal of Assange even as they disparaged the movie. But Cumberbatch’s future as a “movie star” is murky, even though it’s unclear if that’s his endgame. “Based on his choices, his focus seems to be on building an interesting career rather than trying to become a star quickly,” says Tom Heller of Everest Entertainment, the company behind Mud and 127 Hours. “He is picking unique and challenging projects with talented directors, even if his roles are part of an ensemble. The real test may be how The Imitation Game and The Lost City of Z perform, since he will be the lead in both of them. But he is hugely talented, and there are not a lot of actors quite like him at the moment.”
The latter film, The Lost City of Z, based on David Grann’s book about the ill-fated 1925 Amazon adventure of British explorer Percival Fawcett, was once set to star Brad Pitt, so it sizes up to be that tricked-out star vehicle that should settle the matter of whether Cumberbatch has what it takes once and for all. (Pitt’s Plan B is producing the movie, which is still in pre-production.)
Meanwhile, Julian Assange must be experiencing mixed emotions. On one hand, he was a vocal critic of the film, warning potential audiences that it was not only biased and unfair against him, but just flat-out bad. Over the weekend, WikiLeaks offered free downloads of their own documentary, titled Mediastan, to level the playing field. Assange seemed vindicated by the poor reviews of The Fifth Estate, but I can’t help wonder if the public’s apathy toward the movie packs a sting for a man who’s been accused of gross narcissism once or twice. After all, at least Mark Zuckerberg was subjected to a top-notch movie that people still talk about, enhancing his fame in the process. Assange may not have liked Cumberbatch’s portrayal, but I suspect he likes being ignored even less.