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Should George Clooney Stop Directing Movies?

Another movie helmed by the actor-turned-filmmaker has bombed at the box office. 
By  · Published on October 30th, 2017

Another movie helmed by the actor-turned-filmmaker has bombed at the box office.

The return of the Saw franchise won the weekend, coming in at number one at the box office for the fifth time out of eight releases. Unfortunately, Jigsaw still had the lowest debut of the series. Its estimated $16.3M take is just a smidgen under the previous worst, Saw VI, which opened with an adjusted for inflation figure of $16.6M.

But the bigger story of the weekend is the disappointment of Suburbicon. The dark comedy from director George Clooney gave the actor-turned-filmmaker his worst debut ranking yet, coming in ninth place with only $2.8M. That’s a fitting distinction given that the movie, based on a Coen brothers script, is also Clooney’s worst-reviewed effort yet.

His first two movies, 2002’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and 2005’s Good Night, and Good Luck both opened in limited release, but their first wide release weekends were more successful than Suburbicon‘s bow — and the latter did so on fewer than a third of the amount of screens. But back then, Clooney was showing promise behind the camera. Let’s look back at how his directorial career has gone:

Unlike many actors who take up directing, Clooney hadn’t gotten practice helming episodes of the hit TV series he starred on. Instead, he jumped into features with the Charlie Kaufman-scripted Confessions, an adaptation of Chuck Barris’s probably embellished autobiography. The movie was well-received, boasting a 79% Rotten Tomatoes score, though it wasn’t a financial success.

Mostly appreciated for Sam Rockwell’s appearance, Confessions made a splash with a $32.3K average on four screens but then, four weeks later, peaked in eighth place its first wide weekend with $8.6M — averaging $4.9K per screen (these and all further figures adjusted for inflation unless otherwise noted). Ultimately, audiences didn’t love it (giving it a ‘C’ grade via Cinemascore polling) and it finished domestically with only $16M ($23.7M adjusted) and globally with only $33M, barely topping its reported $30M budget.

Three years later, Clooney went from promise to real accomplishment with Good Night, another period piece dealing with the Cold War. The black-and-white historical drama, depicting Edward R. Murrow’s challenge of McCarthyism, not only boasts a terrific reception to the tune of a 93% Rotten Tomatoes (we highlighted Clooney’s direction as “subtle yet impactful”), but it also was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture plus best writing and best directing nods for Clooney himself.

Opening initially in limited release in 11 theaters, Good Night garnered a $77.3K per-screen average. Then, five weeks out, it took in $4.3M — now averaging $6.5K — in seventh place upon a barely wide expansion to 657 theaters. By the end of its run, the movie grossed an unadjusted domestic figure of $31.6M ($43.7M adjusted) and global figure of $54.6M on a reported budget of only $7M. This would be Clooney’s only hit with critics and audiences.

Another three years later brought a bigger blow to Clooney’s directorial career than Good Night‘s lack of any Oscar wins. Working with his biggest budget yet — reportedly $58M — Clooney delivered a screwball sports comedy set in the early years of American football called Leatherheads. It opened in third place on a weekend with not much else going on, taking in only $15.8M (per-screen average: $5.7K). Its final unadjusted domestic tally was only $31.4M ($39M adjusted) and $41.3M worldwide.

Sure, it’s not a huge drop from Good Night, except when you consider the budget difference. The reason it didn’t do better is probably because it wasn’t well-liked. In tune with our criticism that it fumbled in the second half, Leatherheads gave Clooney his first rotten RT score, 53%, and audiences gave it a ‘C+’ grade via Cinemascore. But the filmmaker could apparently do much worse.

But first he’d make a bit of a comeback. Another three years later, Clooney returned to political drama with his only movie that’s not a period piece, The Ides of March. Back to working with a fairly low budget — reportedly only $12.5M — this time he found box office success. Opening in second place with $11.9M (per-screen average: $5.4K), the movie had decent legs and ended with an unadjusted domestic figure of $41M ($46.7M adjusted) and global total of $76M.

Although we gave the movie a pretty negative review (“it seems content to flounder about, trying to make points that are so obvious, most grade schoolers could make them”), Ides has Clooney’s second-best RT score, 84%, with some critics championing the filmmaker’s confidence behind the camera, and audiences liked the movie just fine as evident in its ‘B’ grade via Cinemascore.

Interestingly, Clooney’s next movie, which arrived again after another three years, divided audiences and critics. The Monuments Men, a World War II-set ensemble drama, has a RT score of only 30%, his worst up until that time. Our own review recognizes Clooney’s talent as a director but says his delivery this time is flat. Yet moviegoers enjoyed the movie, giving it a ‘B+’ grade via Cinemascore.

As a result of the general audience favor, The Monuments Men showed long-tail success after opening with $24.7M (per-screen average: $8K). Its unadjusted domestic total of $78M ($87.4M adjusted) is Clooney’s top gross as a director, nearly doubling his previous best. Still not amazing considering the movie reportedly cost $70M to make, but it did nearly double the figure for its worldwide take of $155M .

Finally, after three more years, we come to Suburbicon. This one is unlikely to make much more going further. Audiences gave it a rare ‘D-‘ grade via Cinemascore, and its 27% RT score isn’t going to help, either. The movie is also Matt Damon’s worst wide release debut as an actor and Paramount’s worst opening on 2,000-plus screens. It’s not the worst for a Coen-scripted movie, either financially or critically, but it’s close.

Clooney proves with Suburbicon that he’s not that adept a director, particularly when it comes to the tone of his movies, and his success in the past has been in spite of this problem. But does that mean he should give up the side gigs and continue to focus on his directing? He’s also been faring poorly as a producer, with such negatively reviewed disappointments as Our Brand is Crisis and Money Monster (the latter not a bomb but nothing to celebrate) in the wake of his Oscar for Argo.

As an actor, Clooney has done much better starring in other people’s movies (GravityThe DescendantsHail, Caesar!Up in the Air) to critical and box office success. Even Tomorrowland, which is the only rotten-reviewed movie he’s been in that he didn’t work on as writer, director, or producer in 13 years, performed well at the box office (though not enough to profit).

He ought to be more prolific as a movie star. We all prefer him in front of the camera, right? Perhaps his absence from Suburbicon as an actor even contributed to the movie doing so much poorer than Clooney’s other works. His commitments to so many disappointing features behind the scenes keeps him from doing as much acting, and that’s a shame. Even if he just directed less often than every three years and worked harder on those movies, that’d be better for everyone.

Here’s the estimated top 10 box office chart for this past weekend (new movies are marked in bold):

1. Jigsaw – $16.3M
2. Tyler Perry’s Boo 2! A Madea Halloween – $10M
3. Geostorm – $5.7M
4. Happy Death Day – $5.1M
5. Blade Runner 2049 – $4M
6. Thank You For Your Service – $3.7M
7. Only the Brave – $3.5M
8. The Foreigner – $3.2M
9. Suburbicon – $2.8M
10. It – $2.5M

All box office figures via Box Office Mojo

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.