LOS ANGELES — “By the Sea” didn’t just flop at the box office. It was a flat out rejection, making a mere $538,000 domestically. How could a movie starring the modern king and queen of Hollywood, Angelina Jolie Pitt and Brad Pitt, the couple who can fetch $14 million for baby photos, have so little audience appeal?
That’s the paradox of this movie star couple: Their star power has always been mightier than their box office power, whether together on screen or apart. And that’s not likely to change, now that they’re divorcing.
“There really is no quantifiable effect that I can see that this would have on their careers or their star power,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for box office tracker comScore. “No matter what movies Brad and Angelina are in, they will always be movie stars. That’s just who they are. That’s their persona. But I don’t think there is anyone who makes a determination whether or not to buy a movie ticket based on the personal life of a star.”
The promise of “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” was somewhat of a false indicator for Pitt and Jolie Pitt. Sure, it was the movie that ignited one of the most observed Hollywood relationships of all time, amassing a cool $186.3 million domestically in 2005, but it wasn’t a sign of things to come.
Just look at “By the Sea,” which marked the first time in a decade the couple that launched a million magazine covers would be back on the big screen together.
Costing $10 million to make, “By the Sea” debuted in limited release in November of 2015, already hampered by negative reviews, and sank nearly immediately. It stayed in theaters for only a few weeks, never going over 200 screens. In its final day, it averaged $52 per screen.
At the time, Forbes box office pundit Scott Mendelson wrote that the lackluster earnings were “an unsurprising result for a film that was almost biologically manufactured to be more talked about than actually seen … It was not a test of Brad Pitt and/or Angelina Jolie’s star power, but rather a reward for it.”
It’s somewhat unfair to compare the two films. One is a sexy assassin action comedy designed to appeal to all — the other, a languid, introspective and slow-burning art house film. But the truth is, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” remains one of the top domestic openers and earners for both Pitt and Jolie Pitt, not adjusted for inflation. Pitt’s highest opening weekend is still “World War Z,” with $66.4 million. Jolie’s is “Maleficent” which took in $69.4 million.
“They are perceived as movie stars because they look like movie stars, they act like movie stars, they have the money of movie stars, but when it comes to their box office? Brad Pitt used to be considered not a huge box office draw. He always did great work, but it wasn’t like his movies were breaking records left and right, like his contemporary Tom Cruise,” noted Dergarabedian.
As with before their relationship, during, and after, it will come down to the quality of the movies they choose, Dergarabedian said.
For the moment, future projects are likely getting a boost in buzz because of the divorce. Paramount Pictures, the studio releasing Pitt’s upcoming WWII film “Allied,” pushed out a new trailer just a few hours after news broke on Tuesday of the divorce.
“In the case of ‘Allied,’ it actually enhances its box office potential because a lot of people who are hearing about the divorce in the mainstream press may never have heard about that movie before. Now it’s on their radar,” said Dergarabedian.
But, he says, that might only be temporary too. “Allied” doesn’t bow until November.
“By then this will be so far down in the news cycle it won’t be an issue,” he said. “But for now it has raised the profile.”
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr