5 Reasons Why ‘Snowden’ Couldn’t Hack It at the Box Office

Tough subject matter and weak reviews hurt Oliver Stone’s film about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden

Last Updated: September 18, 2016 @ 9:01 AM

“Snowden” opened to $8 million in theaters this weekend, a disappointing fourth-place start for the Joseph Gordon-Levitt drama about NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden that was produced for $40 million.

Tough subject matter, tough critics and numerous release date changes are just a few reasons why “Snowden” underperformed on 2,443 screens — though the fact that it landed an A from theatergoers surveyed by CinemaScore suggests that it may have some holding power in coming weeks due to positive word of mouth.

Even director Oliver Stone told TheWrap that studios shied away from the film despite a great script and co-star Shailene Woodley.

See the five reasons why “Snowden” was an also-ran in theaters:

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1. People Don’t Know/Care About Snowden

For many Americans, Snowden may not be a household name — or one with enough appeal to lure them into the movie theater. Jeff Bock, senior analyst at Exhibitor Relations, pointed to the 2013 film “The Fifth Estate” about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as a recent comparison.

“I fear Snowden has about as much relevance as Assange, and [“The Fifth Estate”] debuted with just $1.6 million and an embarrassing worldwide total of $8.5 million,” he said. “Seems like a pretty clear bedfellow with ‘Snowden,’ if you ask me.”

Open Road itself has acknowledged the challenge of selling a film about Snowden. “Most people do not know who he is. If they recognize the name, they have a vague understanding,” the distributor’s marketing director Jonathan Helfgot told TheWrap in a recent interview. “A lot of people think he has something to do with WikiLeaks. Actual awareness is very low kind of across the board.”

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2. Joseph Gordon-Levitt Isn’t a Box Office Draw Anymore

The actor hasn’t exactly packed ‘em in for his recent movies. His film “The Walk” was produced on a budget of $35 million, but only grossed $10.1 million domestically after a $3.4 million debut weekend.

“Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” and “The Night Before” also underwhelmed at the box office, the former only grossing $13 million despite an A-list cast.

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3. Difficult Subject Matter

Snowden and the former NSA contractor’s information leaks are a tough sell, the kind that people outside the media may not gravitate toward easily.

“The majority of moviegoers have shown aversion in recent years to these films taking on controversial subjects and/or people (‘Blackhat,’ ‘The Fifth Estate,’ and even ‘Steve Jobs‘ for example),” added Shawn Robbins, senior analyst at BoxOffice.com.

Helfgot said that the politically charged nature of the film’s subject matter has prompted the company to pivot in its approach to marketing the film. “The strategy is to sell it as a thriller to mainstream audiences,” he said. “So-called ‘issue movies’ aren’t a recipe for box office success.”

Bock added that this “type of film just works better on HBO these days, as audiences have shown very little interest in dropping a ten spot on real-life dramas about social and political tomfoolery.”

That ambivalence has dogged the movie from its inception. In an interview with TheWrap at the Toronto International Film Festival, Stone said every major Hollywood studio turned the project down.

“Joseph was my first choice for the role, I called him early,” Stone told TheWrap. But even with the actor attached he couldn’t get studio financing. “He and Shailene [Woodley], the budget, the script — was still rejected by every major studio. It was a torturous process.”

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4. Multiple Release Date Changes

“Snowden” was originally slated to open last December for awards consideration, but was then pushed back to May and finally delayed again until this weekend. Not only does that suggest a lack of confidence in the film, but it has buried it amid bigger box office fare.

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5. Mediocre Reviews

Currently, the film holds a score of 47 percent rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.

“It’s certified splat material on Rotten Tomatoes at just 47 percent — that’s the kiss of death for this genre,” Bock said.

See “Snowden” in theaters when it opens this Friday.