An Actor Prepares (for Primetime)

Greta Gerwig

Last night it was announced that Greta Gerwig will star in and produce (and potentially write) a pilot spinoff of How I Met Your Mother, titled, predictably, How I Met Your Dad. Reaction was swift: many of her fans are none too pleased. That’s idiotic.

A friend once referred to Gerwig as “a national treasure,” and I don’t disagree. She has that intangible, unlearnable spark that makes a great actor. To watch her perform is a treat. It is strange, then, that the opportunity to see her perform week in and week out would elicit jeers.

I think there are two issues at work here. The first is the idea that Gerwig is “selling out” by doing a sitcom. The second is a broader topic for another day: the weird relationship cinephiles have with television. For now I can speak on the first.

Despite her remarkable talent, Greta Gerwig has spent much of the last decade in relative obscurity. Yes, she has worked with A-list talent and now has a Golden Globe nomination to her name for Frances Ha, one of my favorite films of 2013. Yet only two of her films, Arthur and No Strings Attached,1 have opened wide in the US. Her starring vehicles are popular among the indie film set, but if I were to, say, ask my mother if she knows who Greta Gerwig is, not only would she not know but she probably wouldn’t even be able to back into who she is if I named five of her films. It’s a shame that Gerwig isn’t more popular than she is, which is why it’s welcome news that she is making the jump to network television. I should also note that this is all still pie-in-the-sky talk; Gerwig is making a pilot that may not get picked up (though I’ll bet it does). How much more popular could a sitcom make Gerwig? Let’s look at some numbers.

How I Met Your Mother is now in its ninth season and an unmitigated hit. No one can say what the future holds for the spinoff, so take this with a grain of salt. Just last week How I Met Your Mother pulled in an estimated 9.26 million viewers. Frances Ha, by contrast, made just over $4 million at the box office on 233 screens. Since the National Association of Theater Owners estimates the average ticket price for 2013 was $8.13 we can ham-fistedly arrive at a number of people who saw the film during its theatrical run: 500,594.2

That number says nothing of film festival audiences, DVD sales and rentals, digital downloads and streaming plays, all of which are not easily calculated. However, I still think it’s fair to say that in 17 weeks Frances Ha reached 5% of the audience How I Met Your Mother reached last Monday. In fact, I’d wager that 9 million people still haven’t seen Frances Ha.

My point is simply this: Gerwig is going where the audience is. That’s not selling out. That’s entertainment.

  1. Neither of which, I feel compelled to share, I have seen. ↩︎

  2. This is actually a generous calculation. Since the film’s release was so limited, the locales in which it played likely have an even higher average ticket price between them. ↩︎