‘The Fifth Estate’ Box-Office Belly-Flop: Julian Assange Called It

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The tale based on the WikiLeaks founder, once considered a potential Oscar contender, posts one of year’s worst openings

Turns out WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is a better box-office analyst than he is a draw at the multiplex.

“The Fifth Estate,” which stars Benedict Cumberbatch as the online secret-stealer, bombed in its debut this weekend, taking in $1.7 million from 1,769 theaters nationwide in one of the year’s biggest box-office belly flops.

That’s quite a comedown for a movie that was at one point considered an Oscar contender.

“We’re disappointed,” Disney’s head of distribution Dave Hollis said Sunday. “The talent and the whole team worked very hard on this, so it’s a major letdown.”

Also read: Julian Assange to the Hollywood Foreign Press:

It probably didn’t help that Assange, who didn’t cooperate in the filming, predicted the movie would tank.

In a conversation last week, he said the movie “is destined to be a box-office failure,” because audiences prefer “combative underdog” stories.

The talk was conducted for the Hollywood Foreign Press via Skype from the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where Assange has been living under diplomatic asylum for nearly 500 days.

Prior to the movie’s filming, Cumberbatch approached his subject asking for a meeting. Assange not only declined, but tried to talk the actor out of appearing in the movie.

“I don’t think we are in a situation anymore where an organization like DreamWorks or Disney … can succinctly decide that it is going to produce a movie about living people, and living political refugees, and people who are embroiled in a grand jury proceeding in the United States, and just smear, without the cost,” he said.

Also read: Benedict Cumberbatch on Julian Assange’s Cautionary Email: ‘It Galvanized Me’

“The Fifth Estate” was in the awards discussion prior to its debut at the Toronto Film Festival last month. But a lukewarm reception from critics and audiences there killed momentum. Its positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes is 39 percent.

The filmmakers and Disney had hoped the ripped-from-the-headline tale about the group that publishes classified information and news leaks from anonymous sources would capture the spirit of the digital times as “The Social Network” did. That David Fincher-directed story of the how Facebook began brought in $225 million globally and earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination for Sony in 2010.

“I don’t think there’s near the interest In WikiLeaks that there is in Facebook,” said Exhibitor Relations vice-president and senior analyst Jeff Bock told TheWrap. “Think about the title – how many people even know what that means?”

Also read: Movie Titles Can Matter at the Box Office – But How Much?

(For the record, it’s a reference to journalists, media outlets that operate outside of or in opposition to the mainstream media.)

The audience that did show up was 54 percent male and 90 percent over the age of 25. The latter number is troubling, as it indicates that more young people, typically more digitally savvy, weren’t interested. Disney said what business it did manage came from the big cities; the film didn’t begin to connect with Heartland and small-town audiences.

The film, which was directed Bill Condon and co-stars Daniel Bruhl and Anthony Mackie, was produced by DreamWorks and Participant Media for about $26 million. Even with that the relatively low budget, the film is going to be a loser.

Disney can hope that the film will play better abroad, where Assange is a more high-profile figure, but the early returns weren’t encouraging there. It opened in the U.K. and Spain and brought in $1.6 million – less than it made here.