Can ‘Don’t Worry Darling’ Recover From the Bad Press?

Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

Don’t Worry Darling arrives as 2022’s hottest movie mess, and it has everything: rumors of bad blood between the movie’s director, Olivia Wilde, and its lead; alleged on-set infidelity; mudslinging from Shia LaBeouf; spitgate. The ’50s-set psychological thriller stars Florence Pugh as a suburban housewife (Harry Styles plays her husband for her) who discovers sinister truths while living in an isolated, Stepford-like community in the low California desert. But it’s the behind-the-scenes saga that’s captured the public interest as well as threatened to derail the $35 million Warner Bros.–distributed film’s box-office prospects if rubbernecking doesn’t translate into ticket sales.

An anonymous executive from a rival studio called early estimates of DWD‘s opening-weekend box-office performance “schizophrenic,” and an exec at yet another studio called it “all over the place.” One of the execs shared prerelease estimates from the market research firm NRG that showed expectations for the film have whipsawed from $16 million (when tracking began in late August) to $20 million around its explosive premiere at the Venice Film Festival on September 5 — at which Pugh largely neglected press duties and where Styles might have (but probably did not) loogie on co-star Chris Pine — back down to $16 million last week. Current guesstimates now hover around $18 million for the film’s first three days in theaters.

“I’ve never seen tracking go up and down so much,” said the latter exec. “They went up three points of interest, lost five points of interest. Now they’re, like, nowhere. They’ve got young girls excited because of Harry Styles, and that’s it. Their campaign keeps changing: ‘It’s a thriller!’ No, just kidding. ‘It’s a romantic drama!’ ‘It’s this. It’s that!’ Kim Kardashian liked it on Instagram. The audience is like, What the fuck is going on?

In one alarming indication of ebbing interest for Don’t Worry Darling, presales ticket have leveled off this week rather than spiking upward as is more typical of a film about to make its multiplex debut, according to tracking data. By contrast, Paramount’s supernatural-horror title Smile — which opens a full week later on September 30 — just pulled ahead of Don’t Worry Darling with a score of 13 in the crucial box-office tracking metric of “unaided awareness” versus DWD‘s 12, according to a Thursday report from NRG. Not helping matters: Chris Pine’s “last-minute” cancellation of a promotional appearance on ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live! earlier this week. (I have joined Pugh in skipping DWD‘s New York premiere.)

Pugh’s refusal to do more than the barst minimum of media appearances in support of the film has been parsed as confirmation of her animus toward Wilde (the British actress also dedicated but two hashtags on her promotionally vigorous, 8.1 million-strong Instagram account to specific mentions of Don’t Worry Darling as of the publication of this article), and rumors about the true depths of DWD dysfunction have seemingly picked up the promotional slack. According to an anonymous source who spent significant time on the DWD set and spoke to Vulture last week, a blowout argument between star and director did indeed take place in January 2021 — about three-quarters of the way through filming. Pugh, who is a few degrees removed from Wilde’s ex, Jason Sudeikis, had reportedly grown fed up with the director’s frequent unexplained absences. “Olivia and Harry would just disappear,” the source says. But the breaking point came when Pugh, 26, and Wilde, 38, broke into a “screaming match,” this person recalls. According to our source, the acrimony between Wilde and Pugh allegedly reached all the way to the top of the studio totem pole, with the highest-ranking Warner Bros. executive at the time, Toby Emmerich, forced to play referee in a “long negotiation” process” to ensure Pugh would participate in the film’s life cycle “in any way” and not jeopardize the potential box office. (A Warner Bros. spokeswoman said Emmerich was traveling and unavailable to comment. Vulture also reached out for comment to representatives for Wilde and Pugh, who did not respond.)

An anonymous executive with knowledge of the situation told us that top Warner Bros. brass are ultimately unhappy with how Wilde has handled DWD promotional duties—specifically with regard to how she’s discussed LaBeouf’s departure from the film in interviews. (Warner Bros. did not immediately respond to a request for comment.) “Olivia is either a mad genius who figured out a way to make people more aware of the movie in a way that just drives up the box office,” says another source close to the production, “or she doesn’t have any self-awareness that she is fucking up her movie.”

Over the last few days, as accounts of on-set behavior have transformed from tittle-tattle to something closer to accepted fact in the public eye, the NRG prerelease tracking metric of “definite interest” has seen the film’s scores decline from 40 to 35 , threatening the veracity of the old adage any publicity is good publicity. Historically, titles like world war z (reported to involve extensive rewriting and a full third-act reshoot), apocalypse now (requiring the replacement of original lead actor Harvey Keitel with Martin Sheen), and titanica (with its legendary budget bloat and publicized on-set accidents) have overcome rumor mongering and negative publicity to become substantial hits.

Tracking isn’t always 100 percent accurate, and though DWD currently stands at 33 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, poorly reviewed movies still put butts in seats. There is always the outside chance that audiences turn out if for no other reason than a morbid sense of curiosity. Although that if comes with a big asterisk: If Styles’s fans — the film’s primary constituency, all our exec sources agreed — feel shortchanged by how little the boy-band heartthrob appears in the film, Warner Bros. can expect a steep second-weekend dropoff and may have a rocky road reaching profitability.

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