Bill Condon's WikiLeaks drama The Fifth Estate is a critical and commercial failure, but who should take the blame or, depending on the person, the credit? The film, which stars Benedict Cumberbatch as WikiLeaks mastermind Julian Assange, had the worst opening for any film this year. Now, it's not like the film got great reviews, but various parties are seeking answers for the film's implosion. Let's analyze the possible culprits.
Considering the campaign the organization has waged against the film, it would probably be content to gloat over its financial ruin. WikiLeaks leaked the movie's script with their own commentary, and Assange published an open letter to Cumberbatch about how displeased he was with the endeavor. He also told the Hollywood Foreign Press Association during a Skype conversation that the movie was going to fail because audiences would rather have a "combative underdog" to root for than see an anti-WikiLeaks, as he thinks it is.
In The Hollywood Reporter Pamela McClintock wondered, "Did Julian Assange get the last laugh?" in a story that posited that WikiLeaks "sabotaged" The Fifth Estate by releasing its own documentary, called Mediastan, for free download. Of course, as McClintock mentioned, there are no stats on how many people watched Mediastan, and it's hard to imagine that the audience for any single documentary would fill enough seats to make a studio film successful (sorry, documentarians).
Despite his legions of fans on the Internet, maybe Benedict Cumberbatch just isn't a movie star — at least one that can open a movie. Variety's Andrew Stewart wondered if The Fifth Estate bombing would hurt Cumberbatch's potential as a leading man. Meanwhile, Latino Review's El Mayimbe tweeted: "Trades got it wrong. It's not that Americans have little interest in WikiLeaks or its founder, it's Cumberbatch they're not interested in." And while people would be quick to point out that Cumberbatch is also in 12 Years a Slave, which did well, Anne Thompson noted that Cumberbatch doesn't carry that latter movie.
While debunking WikiLeaks' claim for hurting the movie, Adam B. Vary at BuzzFeed pointed out that it was also just a busy weekend. Vary wrote that "this was simply an overcrowded weekend, with no less than six high profile premieres in both wide and limited release, not to mention the continuing box office juggernaut that is Gravity, which grossed $31 million to win the box office for the third weekend in a row." Why go see a movie with iffy reviews, when you could go see any number of movies that have been praised by critics and fans alike. Vary also notes that it probably wasn't wise for Disney-DreamWorks to try to release the film as a blockbuster thriller rather than a smaller, intellectual movie.
The Subject Matter
And maybe moviegoers just don't care about Julian Assange or WikiLeaks. McClintock noted that "insiders close to the film say Americans, particularly those living in conservative states, have no interest in Assange or WikiLeaks," and Vary concluded that "it wasn’t that audiences didn’t care about Cumberbatch. It’s that they didn’t care about Assange." Google Trends probably isn't the best predictor of box office success, but it does illustrate how far away we are from the peak public interest in either WikiLeaks or Assange.