If a filmmaker is lucky, their career trajectory looks something like this: an exciting indie debut, followed by a higher-profile follow-up, maybe something for TV, and then a move to the big leagues. That’s almost exactly the path that Houston native Justin Simien has been on since he first broke through with his 2014 feature Dear White People. The movie became a Netflix series, which ran for four seasons. Simien followed it up with a horror feature, the well-received Hulu original Bad Hair, before getting his chance at a summer movie tentpole. 

His blockbuster, Disney’s Haunted Mansion, opened on Friday, but it’s off to a rough start. Reviews are mixed, but the box office performance is dire. Haunted Mansion opened in third place despite being the only major release of the weekend, with the top two spots going to the twin juggernauts that are Barbie and Oppenheimer. Next week will bring two more films to a crowded multiplex—Seth Rogen’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot and the Jason Statham horror-comedy Meg 2: The Trench—further dimming Haunted Mansion‘s prospects. For a filmmaker who looked poised to ascend the A-list, it’s a disappointing setback for Simien—but it’s also hard to blame him for the situation the film finds itself in.

Haunted Mansion is an adaptation of the Disney theme park ride, which is a formula the studio has worked successfully in the past (Pirates of the Caribbean started as a ride, too, after all). It’s the second adaptation of Haunted Mansion, following a 2003 Eddie Murphy vehicle. This one puts LaKeith Stanfield in the lead as a disgraced, grief-stricken paranormal researcher and Owen Wilson as his sidekick, playing a priest with a dark secret who drags him into the titular spooky house to investigate the spectral presences haunting a newly arrived mother and son (Rosario Dawson and Chase Dillon). Rounding out the cast are Tiffany Haddish as a budget New Orleans psychic and Danny DeVito as a historian with a penchant for haunted houses. Most of the fun of the movie is in these performances, and Stanfield and Wilson are standouts. Wilson, in particular, is in his mid-aughts form, delivering a performance that recalls his classic Meet the Parents–era heyday, and it’s nice to see him back in the saddle, spicing up a studio blockbuster with some offbeat charm. 

The movie’s not special, but it’s also not a dud. It’s maybe twenty minutes too long, but what isn’t? It’s still an hour shorter than Oppenheimer! Like a lot of contemporary horror, it is as interested in contemplating grief as it is in delivering scares (a curious choice in a Disney horror-comedy based on a theme park ride). But this experienced cast does a fine job of carrying most scenes, and the film largely walks the difficult line required by the words “family-friendly horror” well. 

Haunted Mansion is entirely watchable, in other words—but if you look at the box office, where it grossed just $24 million, a fraction of its $150 million budget, it sure appears to be cursed. 

There are a few reasons why that’s the case, and none of them have much to do with Haunted Mansion itself. The film is the first studio release to come out after the Screen Actors Guild strike prevented stars from promoting the movies they’re in. Both Barbie and Oppenheimer, which were released after the strike began, nonetheless had several weeks of runway where their leads appeared at premieres and gave interviews, did social media promotions, and otherwise helped audiences get excited about their movies. Haunted Mansion, meanwhile, hinges on the familiarity and likability of a cast that can’t even tell the potential audience that they’re in a movie right now. As long as studios are unwilling to continue negotiating with actors, those circumstances will impact a lot of other movies, but Haunted Mansion is the first to face that hurdle. Simien acknowledged this challenge in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter: “This is a big ensemble. It’s not a sequel to that first movie or a remake. It’s not building on an existing audience. We need publicity,” he told the Reporter. “We need word-of-mouth. This is going to hurt it.”  

Even if Stanfield, Wilson, and Haddish had been on the late-night shows and eating spicy wings on YouTube to promote the movie, though, Haunted Mansion would have a second unique obstacle: it’s also the first movie to come out after the unprecedented success that is the Barbie/Oppenheimer combo—which was buoyed by a marketing campaign that cost as much as Haunted Mansion’s entire budget. Simien could have made the Citizen Kane of family-friendly haunted house movies based on amusement park rides and he’d still have faced down the sort of cultural phenomenon at the box office that comes around maybe twice a decade. Somebody’s movie had to open the weekend after Barbenheimer, but it’s even more bad luck for Simien that it was his. 

Finally, Haunted Mansion is just coming out at the wrong time of year for the kind of movie it is. It’s not a true jump-scare horror movie, but it’s about as close to one as you’ll find in a PG-13 feature from Disney, which makes the choice to release it in the middle of summer—instead of, say, October—a little curious. The Disney execs who scheduled its release know when Halloween falls on the calendar, so they clearly made an active decision to release Haunted Mansion during a time when audiences might not be in the right frame of mind for ghosts. Given the studio’s spare release calendar for the rest of the summer, it seems likely they opted to use it to patch a hole that opened up when the studio delayed The Marvels, with the expectation that it might find its audience this fall on Disney+. 

This is all a bit of a bummer for fans of Simien’s, including me. Filmmakers who strike out when they get their first big at-bat don’t always get a second chance to step up to the plate, and given the extenuating circumstances, it’d be a shame to see that happen here. Disney celebrated the release of Haunted Mansion by announcing that it had replaced Simien, whom it had tapped to create the Star Wars series Lando for Disney+, with Donald Glover, hardly an auspicious sign for his future. (Simien learned that he had exited the project on social media.) It would be nice to believe that the sort of tentpole projects that Haunted Mansion and Lando represent will continue to have space for a filmmaker like Justin Simien. 

Still, Simien did his initial groundbreaking work without a nine-figure budget or the Star Wars sandbox to play in. The projects he’s currently attached to have a more grounded scope than one populated by CGI ghosts or spaceships—in early 2022, it was announced that he’d be developing a Flashdance TV reboot for Paramount+, while his Hollywood Black documentary series about the Black experience in the entertainment industry was green-lit by MGM+ in April. Hopefully Hollywood looks at the circumstances surrounding Haunted Mansion and recognizes that the factors that knocked it off course have little to do with its director. If so, we’ll get to see Simien, who’s proved himself a unique and exciting voice, shape more high-profile work in the future. But if not, we’d expect that the director of Dear White People still has plenty left to say.