Giant Hollywood movie studios don’t naturally elicit much public sympathy, but you had to feel for the marketing and publicity teams at Warner Bros as they tried to plot a course through the multiple headwinds hitting the launch of Don’t Worry Darling. By the time Twitter was guffawing over memes of a goat landing in Chris Pine’s lap, it was clear that the studio really had lost control of the narrative. Still, with a $30m opening session at the global box office at the weekend, that’s the kind of creative chaos that has given this bizarre saga a very happy twist to the tale.
In case you’ve had better things to do than pay attention to the misfortunes of what might have been a relatively obscure US indie drama, the brouhaha began when director Olivia Wilde found herself in a public dispute with Shia LaBeouf, who had been originally cast in the male lead, opposite Florence Pugh, before being replaced at the last minute by musician Harry Styles.
It’s not unprecedented for late casting changes to occur, but highly unusual for the messy details to spill into the public domain. She said: LaBeouf’s process was not conducive to her working ethos, and was let go. He said: he quit because Wilde couldn’t offer enough rehearsal time. But by making public a video Wilde had sent in a last-ditch attempt to get him to stay in the role, one in which she stated “I think this might be a bit of a wake-up call for Miss Flo”, LaBeouf was also revealing that Pugh was very much part of this story.
Then came the Venice Film Festival, where Pugh did not appear at the press conference for the film (mysteriously held up by shooting Dune 2, even though that film’s lead actor Timothee Chalamet was already in Venice promoting his own film Bones And All). Finally, and most surreally of all: #Spitgate. This erupted on Twitter after it appeared that Harry Styles, arriving at his seat inside the Venice premiere for Don’t Worry Darling, spat into the clapping hands of adjacently seated co-star Chris Pine, leading to a bemused shake of the head from the older actor. (Both actors denied that any spitting took place.)
By this stage, matters had spiralled far beyond Warner Bros’ control – but the narrative pivoted when word emerged that US advance ticket sales on the film were strong. Styles’ legion of fans were going to see the film, no matter what, and were rallying to its cause.
So it has proved, with a chart-topping $19.4m opening box office in North America, rising to $30.3m when overseas territories are added in. Don’t Worry Darling was the top attraction in UK and Ireland cinemas at the weekend, with £2.7m – ahead of second-placed George Clooney/Julia Roberts romcom Ticket to Paradise with £1.7m. (Comscore’s official UK and Ireland chart below adds three days of previews to the Ticket to Paradise number, making it a six-day figure.)
Significantly, the Italian result was strong: Italy proved the third best international market on Wilde’s film, just behind second-placed Mexico, and ahead of France and Germany, which are typically much bigger box office markets for US titles. Could it be that the serial controversies at the Venice Film Festival helped boost Don’t Worry Darling in that territory?
Don’t Worry Darling isn’t the first film to have survived media controversy and come up smiling. In the days before social media, traditional media bizarrely took against the casting of Daniel Craig as James Bond in 2005, dubbing him “James Bland”, but we all know how that story ended. Nearly a decade later, StudioCanal found itself navigating bad publicity on its Paddington film after replacing Colin Firth with Ben Whishaw as the voice of the bear, and especially when the internet responded to early artwork with #CreepyPaddington memes. That was all forgotten once critics and audiences experienced the finished film – and Paddington and its sequel grossed a collective $510m in cinemas worldwide.
The publicity campaign for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's 2005 action thriller Mr & Mrs Smith was overshadowed by tabloid reports of an on-set relationship; yet the film was a hit, making over $50m in its opening weekend, and going on to a $487m global total. Conversely, there really did seem to be such a thing as bad publicity in the case of Russell Crowe/Meg Ryan action thriller Proof of Life, released in cinemas in 2000. Ryan fans, who cherished her as America’s Sweetheart, couldn’t approve of her on-set affair with Crowe while still married to her husband Dennis Quaid. "Russell didn’t break up the marriage,” Ryan would later say. “He was definitely there at the end, but it wasn’t his fault.) Crucially, this behaviour was seen as entirely off-brand for Ryan, who had presumably been cast with the intention of broadening the film’s appeal to the female demographic. The $63m global box office that resulted was considered lacklustre.
It's true that Wilde ended her relationship with actor Jason Sudeikis, with whom she has two children, and started dating Styles – and the sequence of those events is decidedly fuzzy – but that fact now almost seems incidental. Hey everyone, here’s a funny clip of Harry dropping a goat into Chris Pine’s lap.
Don’t Worry Darling did not prove a hit with critics, but is so far faring better with audiences, with a 78 per cent fresh audience score at Rotten Tomatoes, and a decent B– at CinemaScore (the same as current release See How They Run, and just below Nope which scored a B). In the UK, the film earned its 15 certificate for sexual content, among other adult-skewing elements, and there are certainly scenes in the film that many Styles fans will not wish to miss.
It remains to be seen whether or not Don’t Worry Darling sustains at the box office, but given a modest production budget of $30m, the film already looks set for a profitable outcome. The irony, that while le tout Twitter has been amply entertained by #Spitgate and “Miss Flo” snark, is that Warner Bros really does have a significant film crisis on its hands – and one relating to a massive investment.
With a reported production spend of $200m, DC Films’ The Flash is set for release next June, having slid all over the release calendar. Star Ezra Miller’s problems, including arrests and a restraining order, make Don’t Worry Darling’s misfortunes look like one very silly tempest in a teacup, and the actor has now begun treatment for “complex mental health issues”. Whether this course of action was very much at the encouragement of a studio running out of patience, we can only surmise. Either way, next summer’s release of The Flash might make #Spitgate look like a walk in the park.
UK and Ireland box office
Top 10 Films September 23-25 (includes previews)
Ticket to Paradise, £2.81m from 687 sites (new)
Don’t Worry Darling, £2.77m from 693 sites (new)
Avatar (rerelease), £1.22m from 535 sites (new)
See How They Run, £473,000 from 640 sites. Total: £3.70m (3 weeks)
Moonage Daydream, £375,000 from 559 sites. Total: £676,00 (2 weeks)
Minions: The Rise of Gru £268,000 from 536 sites. Total: £45.4m (13 weeks)
DC League of Super-Pets £237,000 from 526 sites. Total: £15.2m (9 weeks)
Tad the Lost Explorer and the Curse of the Mummy, £202,000 from 598 sites. Total: £1.38m (3 weeks)
Bullet Train £153,000 from 268 sites. Total: £10.6m (8 weeks)
Top Gun: Maverick £139,000 from 341 sites. Total: £83.1m (18 weeks)
Thanks to Comscore; @cSMoviesUK