The Beaver
Credit: Ken Regan

The Beaver, to be blunt, tanked last weekend. The PG-13 dramedy, starring Mel Gibson as a severely depressed toy-company executive who starts using a beaver hand-puppet to communicate with the world, opened in 36th place with $107,577. Granted, the film was playing in just 22 theaters, but the math works out to only $4,890 per theater. Gibson’s last film, 2010’s Edge of Darkness, debuted to a per-theater average of $5,615 — at more than 3,000 locations. And that movie was considered a box-office failure. For comparison’s sake, the indie smash Black Swan opened to $1.4 million at 18 locations for a per-site average of, whoa, $88,863.

Nobody was expecting Swan-like numbers for The Beaver, which Summit Entertainment considered releasing last year before settling on March 23 and then switching to May 6. After all, Gibson has spent the past year swamped in controversy due to the leak of allegedly threatening phone calls between the actor and his ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva, as well as a subsequent misdemeanor battery charge. (Gibson pleaded no contest as part of a plea bargain that didn’t contain an admission of guilt.) Still, The Beaver was directed by and costarred Jodie Foster, and also featured such up-and-comers as Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone, The Hunger Games) and Anton Yelchin (Star Trek). The $21 million film should have done better than this, so what happened? Who or what’s to blame? Well, the film’s underperformance was likely the result of a few factors:

1. The reviews weren’t strong enough.

Unlike wide releases, for which studios spend millions upon millions to convince you that a movie’s worth seeing regardless of its potential horribleness, limited releases rely heavily on critics. “Whenever I look at a platform release that doesn’t work, the first thing I look at are the film’s reviews,” says one rival studio executive. “And for a platform release, [The Beaver‘s reviews] were really soft.” The movie scored a 59 rating at Metacritic (designating mixed or average reviews) and a 63 percent approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Clearly not awful reviews, but not the kind of reviews that makes one rush out to see a movie that may be playing clear across town, either.

2. The Mel Gibson ick factor.

Despite The Beaver‘s mostly mediocre reviews, critics were generally impressed by Gibson’s performance. In her review, EW’s Lisa Schwarzbaum called the movie an “adventurous character study by a passionate Mel Gibson” who delivers “high-quality work.” But people don’t approach movies in a pop-culture vacuum. No matter the amount of praise he received or the uniqueness of the character he played, that’s still Mel Gibson’s mug being projected onto the screen. And while you’d like to think that most people would be willing to separate an actor’s personal life from his professional work, that’s simply not the case. It’s reasonable to believe that a significant portion of moviegoers stayed away from The Beaver simply because they wanted nothing to do with Gibson. “You’d assume at some point America would forgive him,” says an executive from another studio. “But maybe they’re not ready to yet.”

3. The film’s subject matter.

If you asked your friend whether she’d like to see a movie about a guy who finds redemption via a talking beaver puppet, what would her initial response be? Obviously there’s a lot more to The Beaver than that simplistic synopsis, but movies often flourish or drown based upon someone’s quick answer to the question: “What’s it about?” An atypical movie like The Beaver requires marketing that’s particularly persuasive. “The subject matter is a hard sell,” Richie Fay, Summit’s domestic distribution president, told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s not the type of role that people would gravitate to or expect [Gibson] to be in.” As a result, many moviegoers may have opted to simply wait until the film comes out on Netflix.

4. Stars don’t hold as much sway these days.

Along with The Beaver, two other indie films with big-name stars were also released last weekend: the romantic drama Last Night, starring Keira Knightley and Sam Worthington, and the thriller Passion Play, with Mickey Rourke, Megan Fox, and Bill Murray. The two movies debuted to a combined $31,605. With access to Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, not to mention Twitter, Facebook, and a plethora of entertainment sites, moviegoers have become more savvy and discerning. Art-house movies used to count on a well-known actor to help bring in a crowd, but now indie audiences seem more impressed by glowing reviews and Oscar buzz. The Beaver had neither, although EW’s Dave Karger thinks Gibson could have possibly scored a Golden Globe nomination had the film been released late last year.

To those who skipped The Beaver last weekend, what was your rationale? Would you have been more likely to check out the film had it starred someone other than Mel Gibson?

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