LOS ANGELES — With bankable stars and a bestselling book as its source material, “Never Let Me Go” looked for a long time like it would be this season’s art-house breakout. When costar Andrew Garfield was chosen as the new “Spider-Man” this summer, the movie’s stock shot up even further.
But five weeks into its release, Mark Romanek’s film has been an undeniable disappointment. The Carey Mulligan-Keira Knightley picture — a science fiction-tinged mood piece about a group of petri-dish babies in a slightly altered universe — has grossed less than $2 million in domestic release. (By comparison, “Winter’s Bone,” another movie about young people in a difficult situation that hits the down beats pretty hard, has tallied three times as much.)
And “Never Let Me Go’s” run, which distributor Fox Searchlight hoped could continue through the fall, appears to be nearing its end. The movie widened to more than 200 theaters last weekend, but its per-screen average was so low that the movie will start to lose screens in the coming weeks.
The film’s performance has disappointed its ardent fans, who have responded enthusiastically to its performances and ideas. We polled a few outside experts and talked to Fox Searchlight executives to discover why it didn’t catch on. Five factors emerged.
—It’s a downer. Adult-oriented movies have been enjoying a good season, with “The Town” and “The Social Network” rolling along. But, true to Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, the book maintains a melancholy tone throughout. Even “Winter’s Bone” gives you a bit more of a hug.
—Divided critics. Art-house films — and especially Britain-set dramas — need all the critical support they can get. But the movie stands at just 65 percent approval on Rotten Tomatoes, not nearly a large enough number. (By comparison, “Winter’s Bone” has elicited a 94 percent approval rating, as did last year’s Mulligan breakout “An Education”).
—Men don’t dig it. Although there’s a science-fiction premise, the movie hasn’t elicited an especially warm reaction among men, according to Searchlight’s informal polling. That cuts out half of the audience — and makes it even less of an art-house date night film than it otherwise would have been.
—The novel problem. The audience for Ishiguro’s book gives the movie a marketing head start. But a beloved novel also sets expectations high — expectations that even the most faithful adaptation sometimes can’t reach.
—Date issues. With its mid-September release date, Fox Searchlight hoped to beat the rush for serious fall movies. (The company also needed to take advantage of a narrow publicity window for Mulligan.) But it might have gone too early, before filmgoers were ready for the more weighty fare of the fall.
The movie could yet find an audience on DVD, especially as Garfield continues to come into his own. But those who appreciate serious drama made within the Hollywood system — that is, with stars and a modicum of a budget — may find the development more depressing than the film. Fox Searchlight wouldn’t say that the box-office performance will force it to reevaluate whether to make these kinds of films in the future. But any company with designs on making a prestige-heavy drama will undoubtedly be given pause by “Never Let Me Go.”