The Joseph Gordon-Levitt Bromance Strategy: Why ‘Don Jon’ Was More Than a Box Office Play

Relativity got what it wanted out of ‘Don Jon’: A shot at a long-term relationship with JGL

Joseph Gordon-Levitt‘s “Don Jon,” the hypersexual rom-com that he wrote, stars in and directed, was never destined to be a break-out hit. But for Relativity — which raised eyebrows by aggressively pursuing the movie at Sundance — instant gratification was never the point.

The R-rated tale, in which JGL’s character, a young man struggling with intimacy thanks to porn addiction, opened to a solid but unspectacular $9 million this weekend.

That’s almost exactly where Relativity and analysts had projected the star’s edgy first-time directing gig, which co-stars Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore and Tony Danza, would land. It’s also way below the big box-office numbers some of the actor’s other more-commercial projects like “Dark Knight Rises,” “Lincoln” and even “Looper” have rung up.

Also read: The Evolution of Joseph Gordon-Levitt: From Child Actor to ‘Don Jon’ Director (Photos)

“This is a relationship movie, not s visual effects extravaganza or a comic book superhero movie,” Relativity’s head of distribution Kyle Davies told TheWrap, “so we’re very happy with the way this played. And we hope to be in the Joseph Gordon-Levitt business for some time.”

And there’s the rub: Relativity honchos Ryan Kavanaugh and Tucker Tooley threw down the gauntlet at the Sundance Film Festival — $4 million up front, plus a promise to spend a reported $25 million to market it in a wide release — not just for one Joseph Gordon-Levitt movie, but to spark a professional bromance.

Has it worked? The actor and the studio are talking about potential projects — but have nothing firmed up yet. Just how happy JGL is with their “Don Jon” efforts will have a lot to do with whether anything comes to fruition.

Relativity has a lot to consider, too. The fact is that while Gordon-Levitt has a solid fan base, movies in which he’s been the main player have never scored big at the box office. His bicycle delivery thriller “Premium Rush” was a disappointment with $6 million opening last year, and “50/50,” his 2011 comedy-drama about cancer, debuted to $8.6 million in 2011.

Gordon-Levitt’s profile has raised since then, however. And he can take heart in that his directing debut compares favorably with those of some other big actor-turned-filmmaker names.

Also read: ‘Don Jon’ Review: Joseph Gordon-Levitt Aces the Foreplay, Flubs the Climax

Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone” debuted with $5.5 million in 2007, Drew Barrymore’s “Whip It” opened to $4.6 million in 2009 and George Clooney’s “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” took in $5.8 million in 2002. Tom Hanks’ ‘That Thing You Do” brought in $6.2 million in 1996.

Gordon-Levitt and Johansson worked hard to promote the film; either he or Johansson were on five magazine covers for the film’s opening, including Interview, Entertainment Weekly, Out, Esquire and Men’s Health. That certainly raised awareness — Gordon-Levitt has been trending on social media for days — but may also have see the box-office bar higher than it should have been.

Relativity has had to manage expectations on “Don Jon” since it picked up the U.S. rights at Sundance in January. Typically, a film of this nature would open on a limited basis and hope to build buzz via word of mouth over time. Gordon-Levitt wanted a wide release for “Don Jon” however — and that was part of the deal.

The critics loved it — since its buzz-heavy debut in Park City, the film has rung up an 81 percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes. But opening night audiences, which were 50-50 male-female and 66 percent over 25, gave it just a “C+” CinemaScore, suggesting the porn plot line may have some people off.

Relativity remains confident “Don Jon’ can build momentum, however, and Davies said he believed the film’s edge would be its strength. He noted that “Don Jon” received higher marks from younger members of the audiences, who are the target demographic, and said that the studio would seek to capitalize on that with a social media push.

Also read: Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s ‘Don Jon’ Reviewed by a Porn Star (Video)

“This is a different sort of movie that’s going to provoke plenty of discussion and we think that, and the great reviews, are going to carry it over the next several weeks,” he said. A release schedule that is heavy on dramas and light on comedies should help, too.

Given the critics’ glowing take and the raves the film drew on the festival circuit, is it possible the nature of the tale of young man with a penchant for smut made mainstream moviegoers reluctant to embrace it – or at least admit it to CinemaScore pollsters?

“There might have been some sort of disconnect,” Davies said. “But we think it’s going to work out just fine.”