Tech: The American flag controversy around 'First Man' isn't the reason it's performing poorly at the box office

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First man Daniel McFadden

"First Man," starring Ryan Gosling, has disappointed at the US box office, but not because of the American flag controversy, according to a recent survey.

  • "First Man," the Neil Armstrong biopic starring Ryan Gosling, has disappointed at the US box office in its first two weeks.
  • But a new survey suggests the poor performance can't be blamed by the American flag controversy that hung around the movie in the lead-up to its opening.
  • Conservative politicians and pundits like Marco Rubio criticized the movie before it was released for not including a scene of the American flag being planted on the moon (despite the flag itself being shown in multiple instances).
  • While audiences didn't seem to care much, a variety of respondents to a recent survey said they didn't understand why the film didn't just include the scene.

Ryan Gosling’s “First Man” can’t blame the American flag controversy for its poor box-office performance, according to new research conducted for Business Insider by on-demand insights platform AlphaHQ.

Gosling plays astronaut Neil Armstrong in the biopic, which is director Damien Chazelle’s first since winning an Oscar for “La La Land.” The film opened to rave reviews from critics and was, according to Variety, eyeing a $20-plus million opening weekend.

But the movie debuted at the low end of its predicted range, banking $16.5 million its opening weekend. Then this week it dropped 46%, slipping down past “Goosebumps 2” to fifth place. “First Man” has made $28 million so far at the domestic box office.

As “First Man” struggles, the industry has been looking around for the reason why. With star power and good reviews, why is this presumed Oscar darling slumping?

One explanation put forward was the controversy that has stuck to the movie since late August, when Gosling mentioned in an interview that there wasn’t scene in the movie of Armstrong planting the American flag on the moon. In the interview, Gosling emphasized that getting a man on the moon was a human achievement, not just an American one, and said he didn't "think that Neil viewed himself as an American hero.”

Those comments didn’t sit well with many conservatives. A tweet by Marco Rubio, which declared Gosling’s position “total lunacy,” stoked the ire of many online.

The “First Man” team pushed back against the idea that the movie wasn’t patriotic and mentioned that there were in fact multiple shots of the flag on the moon (though not one of the actual planting).

"One of the things that upset me the most about the flag conversation is this is very much a celebration of blue-collar work, or patriotic sacrifice, which is what Neil embodied," screenwriter Josh Singer told Business Insider.

Singer said people like Rubio would understand if they just saw the movie. But now that “First Man” has opened, and fewer people are seeing it than Hollywood expected, the question has been reopened: Did people stay away from the cinema because they were ticked off about the American flag?

The short answer, according to a survey for Business Insider by AlphaHQ, is “no.”

First off, out of 295 people surveyed who had been to the movie theater in the last 30 days, only 25% had heard about the controversy. And of those who knew about the movie and the controversy, only 17% said they were staying away because of the flag-planting debate. That means, at worst, a tiny percentage of the box office could have been impacted.

Of respondents to the survey who did see “First Man,” 70% were either extremely or moderately satisfied, while only 7% were not all all satisfied — though one respondent who rated the movie poorly cited a lack of reference to “American exceptionalism.”

But most liked the movie.

“It had a great story, amazing cinematography,” one person said. “I enjoy Ryan Gosling in almost anything. Plus Damien Chazelle is an amazing director. Also I’ve always loved space films. It was interesting to see the back story of Neil Armstrong's trip to the moon and it was very well done. I thought it was an accurate depiction of Neil Armstrong's life, as well as insightful. Truly authentic movie about the Apollo 11 space mission.”

Though the lack of a flag-planting scene didn’t dampen most people’s enjoyment of the movie, many, even those with a positive reaction, seemed to not understand why it wasn’t included.

“It should have been included, it was a important part of the whole moon landing,” one person said.

“I think that it was an important part of the Apollo missions and as I recall it is actually in the real footage so it seems like it might have been left out to make it more marketable in other countries,” another theorized.

Taken as a whole, the survey suggests that while many people don’t quite buy the reasoning behind keeping the scene out, it didn’t ruin their enjoyment of the movie — and they aren’t boycotting the movie because of it.

Since the release, Universal has said it expects the movie to have legs in its theatrical run. If it doesn’t, the industry will have to look toward something other than the American flag controversy to blame.

“As we’ve seen in this release corridor, quality films like ‘First Man’ — Certified Fresh at 88% on Rotten Tomatoes — have strong playability and will have tremendous legs at the box office,” Universal’s distribution president Jim Orr told Variety after the movie’s opening weekend in theaters. “This weekend’s results are a just a starting point. Quality adult dramas released in this time period produce very healthy multiples. This is very much a marathon, not a sprint.”

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