THE FIFTH ESTATE 2013 DreamWorks Pictures production with Benedict Cumberbatch  at left as Julian Assange and Daniel BruhlDreamworks

Guess Julian Assange got all worked up over nothing. The controversial WikiLeaks founder famously fretted that "The Fifth Estate," the unauthorized thriller about him, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, would make him look foolish before countless moviegoers. Indeed, the Disney release was supposed to be one of this fall's prestige pictures, perhaps headed for Oscar glory.

Instead, the movie opened with poor reviews and a thud at the box office. It debuted this weekend in eighth place, earning only an estimated $1.7 million from 1,769 screens, for a meager $969 per-screen average. In other words, each theater where "Fifth Estate" was playing sold only about 40 tickets per day.

So if Assange came out looking bad, no one noticed. Disney looking bad, however, is another story. "We're certainly disappointed by the results," Disney distribution chief Dave Hollis told Variety, "and we're still trying to figure out the 'whys.'"

Are the "whys" really that hard to figure out? Here are some of them:

Bad Reviews: Disney had expected awards-season kudos for its timely thriller, but critics who saw it at the Toronto Film Festival panned it, and critics throughout North America who saw it later agreed. Unfortunately for "The Fifth Estate," its target viewership was an adult audience that still cares about reviews.

Middling Word-of-Mouth: "Fifth Estate" earned only a B at CinemaScore, which suggests moviegoers gave it wishy-washy recommendations.

Benedict Cumberbatch Is Not Yet a Star: Sorry, Cumberbitches. The English actor has a strong cult following, thanks to his TV performance as Sherlock Holmes, his suave work in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," and his villains in big fanboy movies like "Star Trek Into Darkness" and the forthcoming "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." But none of that makes him a box office draw who can carry a movie on his own shoulders. Someday soon, perhaps, but not yet.

The Marketing Plan Did a 180: Once Disney realized the movie wouldn't sell as a prestige picture, it tried to market "Fifth Estate" as a spy-thriller for general audiences. It scrapped the planned platform-release schedule (a handful of East and West Coast theaters, to build critical goodwill and word-of-mouth, before opening nationwide) and went wide right away, on nearly 1,800 screens. Of course, at a time when most wide-release movies open on twice that many screens, "Fifth Estate" was hobbled from the start. Maybe Disney couldn't muster any more screens after its last-minute shift, as they may already have been booked for October's other wide releases. Which brings us to:

Tough Competition: There were already two new, wide general-audience thrillers opening this week, each on at least 1,000 more screens than "Fifth Estate": the horror remake "Carrie," and the old-school Sylvester Stallone/Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle "Escape Plan." Both opened in the top five, above $9 million, but they, too, underperformed expectations. The reason? Because "Gravity" and "Captain Phillips" are still atop the chart. Both movies have received ecstatic reviews and strong word-of-mouth, both play well to both general audiences and to the adults who were supposed to go see "Fifth Estate."

Julian Who? WIkiWhat?: It's not clear that most or even many people know or care who Julian Assange is or what WikiLeaks is. Or whether they can say with certainty that his massive online postings of military and diplomatic files have harmed U.S. security or merely embarrassed powerful officials. Or even what juicy revelations have come from his huge document dumps. People seem a lot more concerned these days with the government shutdown, the debt ceiling, and America's economic security, not its military security, which is something many Americans go to the movies to forget about. It's an important topic, but one that few people can make sexy enough to sell millions of movie tickets. Not even Benedict Cumberbatch can do it.

Fifth Estate Movie Review
The Fifth Estate Movie Poster
The Fifth Estate
Based on 42 critics

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and a colleague, Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel... Read More