Weekend Preview! Dec 10th-12th, West Side Story Debuts!

Steven Spielberg’s long gestating West Side Story finally arrives in theaters alongside an thoroughly under-advertised STX release and offbeat Oscar Hopeful Red Rocket!

We officially are just one week away from the release of the likely/hopeful box office juggernaut that Spider-Man: No Way Home! With many analysts predicting that film will have the first $100 million opening weekend of the pandemic era (some are even predicting it to open to $200 million, which would be insane), No Way Home looks to be the shot in the arm that movie theaters have been looking for since the deflated Thanksgiving weekend grosses we saw two weekends ago. Clearly, the entire industry is going on hold as we wait for the interdimensional superhero flick given that this coming weekend is once again just holdovers with only two new films entering the fold (one which can barely even be counted). Yes, unfortunately, this weekend is looking to be quite the downer in terms of grosses, and with the steep drop-offs from last weekend, I’ll be hard-pressed to see which films, if any, can rustle up any extra revenue before they are totally blown away this next week.

In terms of our newbies, the greater, more commercial, and overall splashier title bounding into multiplexes this weekend is the long-awaited (almost a year delay due to the pandemic) Steven Spielberg-directed, Tony Kushner-penned adaptation for West Side Story. Starring Ansel Elgort as Tony (much to the chagrin of many), newcomer Rachel Zegler as Maria, Broadway veterans Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, and Mike Faist as Anita, Bernardo, and Riff, respectively, and featuring the return of Rita Moreno to the film property that won her an Oscar (she also executive produces the film), the film’s big selling point, aside from it being directed by Spielberg, who long spoken of his desire to helm a musical, is that this version of the famed musical actually features an ethnically appropriate cast, primarily in it giving Latino actors the Latino roles as opposed to darkening the skin of white actors as the 1961 film did. Yes, there have been some other changes, in song arrangements, how they are organized in the story, and other casting changes (i.e. Anbodys being played by a non-binary actor), but for the most part, according to those who have seen the film, the story remains largely unchanged and as a result, the vast majority of the film’s coverage has been talking up the cast’s diversity when, of course, not talking up Spielberg.

Now, there are some factors that complicate predictions for this film’s performance to a greater degree than one might expect. Generally, one would expect a big lavish musical backed by Spielberg (a brand in and of himself) to automatically be a big hit. However, there are some problems. The first is exactly the same problem that plagued an earlier 2021 musical film this year, In The Heights, that being the question: do people actually care about this movie? On the surface, it definitely seems like people do. Ever since the incredible first teaser we got at the Oscars this year, the film community has been anxious to see the final product, and now that critics have seen the movie, the hype appears to have been justified. While several critics have posed the question as to why another version of West Side Story was necessary, they have been nearly unanimous in their praise for the film’s production values, technical craft, Spielberg’s masterful direction, and performances and musical abilities of the cast, with many purposing that this 2021 version surpasses the 1961 film (I know right!). Indeed, it would seem that West Side Story has the creative auspices as well as the favor of critics, but with that, the question becomes whether or not that will translate into audience interest in what appears on the surface to be a rehash? If the result looks anything like what it did for In the Heights, a film that was anticipated earlier this year as the more “authentically” Latino version of West Side Story (given that it was based on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2008 Broadway hit of the same name, Miranda served a producer, and the film featured a more heavily Latino cast), then it would be a disaster given that In the Heights flopped precisely because no one was actually all that interested in seeing that musical brought to the screen (audiences really want a Hamilton movie). That said, I personally believe that Spielberg does mitigate this as he hasn’t had a film come out since Ready Player One, and the prospect of him directing a musical is enticing, though one still has to wonder.

The other complicating factor is that of the film’s release date. With the movie opening today, West Side Story is cementing its place as an awards hopeful, opening mid-December to catch the eye of Oscar voters right as the year comes to an end. However, opening in December does have a bit of a tendency to throw box office performance all out of wack. First and foremost, there is Christmas, which not only results in a lot of money being tossed around for presents and not toward going to theaters, but also traditionally brings out an abundance of new releases. Given that most families are off from school and work during this time, distributors pack the three week Christmas Break-New Years corridor with as many movies as they can, largely in the hopes that increased leisure time will allow audiences to see more movies than they usually would, as well as set the movies up nicely to leg out into January, a traditionally light month for moviegoing. This year alone, from December 22nd through January 1st, we have seven films opening wide, and that is on top of next week’s release, Nightmare Alley and Spider-Man: No Way Home.

That last film is the final complicating factor here. No Way Home is undeniably the most hotly anticipated movie of the year, and given that the Christmas season is an expensive one for many, it is not wrong to assume that if families decide to only pick one movie to see this month, it will be No Way Home. Sure enough, Sony, in anticipation of this, had tickets go on sale on November 29th, just to make sure they locked in audiences prior to next week. All of this is contributing to likely sucking the air out of West Side Story‘s imminent release. I say sucking the air out because, under normal circumstances, the film would be projected to open much higher than it is currently.

Generally speaking, Spielberg’s straightforwardly adult dramas, as of late (think War Horse, Lincoln, Bridge of Spies, and The Post) don’t open particularly big, especially not in December. Of those past 5 films, only Lincoln managed to open to a gross greater than $20 million, and even in that case, the film opened first in limited release in early November before expanding steadily into wide release into December. Outside of that, most of these films have opened to a wide release gross of around $15 million. Now, to be fair, West Side Story does boast a lot more razzle-dazzle than these releases, enough that I would make the comparison between it and Ready Player One, which didn’t open in December but did boast a lot of technical wizardry and lively atmosphere which, in turn, powered it to a $41 million opening weekend. Subtracting a little from that to account for the holiday corridor and in any other case, I would be pegging West Side Story, with all its prestige and buzz, to open around $30 million. Unfortunely, this seems not to be the case for many pundits, who are are actually projecting it to open between $12-17 million. That’s wild to me, but a bit understandable given the presence of No Way Home pulling in tons of money already in presales and leaving West Side Story with less of an audience to ensnare.

As for where I stand with regard to this predicament, I definitely concur with many pundits who say that West Side Story should have opened last weekend, right smack in the middle of the Post-Thanksgiving corridor. With absolutely no competition, a Spielberg-ian, lavish musical would have absolutely earned $30 million, setting it up nicely to leg out through Christmas and weather the No Way Home storm. Alas, Disney did not make the smart decision and has kneecapped the film significantly by opening it so close to Spider-Man. That said, I am inclined to be a bit bullish about my prediction, given that in my experience, audiences tend to like well-made musicals. I personally will go as far as to say that I think West Side Story can crack $20 million this weekend, largely because I get the distinct impression that word of mouth will be strong. No matter what, the film will end up in the number one spot. The only question is, can it climb high enough and carve out an audience before No Way Home hits?

As for our other newbie release, there actually isn’t much to say, largely because the film has barely been advertised. Tell me, have you seen a single preview, TV Spot, or even poster for a movie called National Champions? I’m willing to bet a lot that the answer to that question is a resounding no. Now, I have, but that is solely because, 1) I’m into film and actively keep tabs on what kinds of movies are being greenlit, with what cast, and which distributors, and 2) based on the strength of this cast (featuring an incredible roster that includes the likes of J.K. Simmons, Uzo Aduba, Stephan James, Alexander Ludwig, Timothy Olyphant, Lil Rel Howery, Tim Blake Nelson, Jeffery Donovan, Andrew Bachelor, and Kristen Chenoweth!), I’ve been waiting desperately for this movie to be released. Finally coming out to extraordinarily little fan-fare courtesy of STX Entertainment (a distributor I continue to have a love/hate relationship with), National Champions follows a group of college football players who, on the eve of the National Championship game, decide to go on strike and demand that they be compensated as employee’s of their respective schools given that they put their bodies and health on the line for their institution’s highly lucrative sports divisions. Directed by Ric Roman Waugh, who helmed the recent and, quite successful, Angel Has Fallen, as well as the surprisingly well-crafted disaster film, Greenland (both starring Gerard Butler), National Champions‘ looks, based on the trailer, admittedly cheap (it was produced for $9 million) but has an undeniably fascinating premise and a very strong cast to tackle it with.

Based on Waugh’s previous work, where he has shown himself to have a strong ability to balance macro-events and spectacle with more intimate human moments and themes, as well as the elements at play here in this story, National Champions has all the makings of the kind of film that “no one makes anymore,” an original drama aimed at adult. STX has actually made a real effort to craft more of these films in a world where this kind of movie rarely ever does well at the box office, something for which I have to give them props. However, unfortunately, despite their genuinely great efforts on the production side of things, many of STX’s films have flopped and left the company in such as state that, just this week, STX was announced to be going through its second corporate merger to stave off bankruptcy. Also quite unfortunate, these circumstances have resulted in STX getting admittedly sloppy over the course of the year. Now, I can’t blame the studio for doing what it has to do remain financially solvent, which includes practices like selling off much of their 2021 slate of films to streaming services (most notably, both the deliciously nasty I Care a Lot and the sugary actioner Gunpowder Milkshake to Netflix). However, in doing this, STX seems to have forgotten how to release a film properly.

A few months prior to now, STX “released” the film Queenpins, a fun, wacky, slightly uneven comedy starring Kristen Bell and Kirby Howell-Baptiste (as well as a dynamite duo in Paul Walter Hauser and Vince Vaughn) following to women as they develop and run a $40 million counterfeit coupon scam. Another original, adult-skewing film, and a comedy no less, STX understandably had concerns about the film’s financial prospects and smartly removed the film’s financial risk by preemptively selling the streaming rights to Paramount+ and Showtime for $20+ million, more than covering the film’s production budget. Smart. However, seemingly thanks to this, STX then decided to barely release the film in theaters, dropping it in under 500 theaters across the country and leaving it there to die off quickly so that it could be rushed to streaming. Not smart. While I absolutely believe the movie will kill in the ancillary market, STX left a ton of money on the table by not giving the film a proper wide release. I don’t necessarily believe that the film would have made a killing in theaters, however, I do think that given that it had already made a profit off streaming deals STX made, it would have behooved them to give it a proper theatrical rollout, that way any and all revenue it made in theaters would just be icing on the cake. But no, instead STX quickly put it in a small number of theaters to die.

I bring that up because, although they have not sold off the streaming rights to National Champions (that we know of), STX seems to be botching the release once again by not making any effort to advertise. I can understand the fear that a film like this might not be viable in this kind of market right now. That said, the film was so cheap to make that I do think it would have been more than worth the time and money to put some more effort into marketing and really get the word out. Whether or not it flops, had STX properly advertised the film, it would be fresher in the minds of the public and would be more likely to actually take in money at the box office this weekend, which in turn would make it seem like a more worthwhile rental down the line, drawing in more revenue in the ancillary market. The fact that STX has not advertised the movie at all speaks to a potential cost-cutting measure to keep the film cheap, but unfortunately, the act of not advertising it puts it in a worse condition financially because it suggests a lack of faith in the product on the part of the studio. Why would anyone go see a movie whose own studio isn’t willing to advertise it? Industry reports suggest that a $3-8 million debut is potentially in the cards for National Champions, but my estimates would honestly cap out at $4 million dollars at best, which would put it at number 4 this weekend in my projections. I myself would very much to see the film on the strength of the director and cast, but unless there are a lot more people out there thinking like that, there is a distinct possibility that National Champions may not even debut in the top 10.

As for the rest of the top ten, I’m predicting a relatively similar weekend to last weekend, in which most films saw relatively sharp drops, especially given that several films in the top ten are reaching the likely ends of their runs and also due to the imminent arrival of No Way Home sucking the air out of the room. In second and third place, I am rooting for both Encanto and Ghostbusters: Afterlife to stabilize. In spite of Encanto‘s muted debut, and Afterlife‘s surprisingly shorter legs, I am expecting each to have a bit stronger of a hold this weekend simply given how box office patterns usually go. Encanto is entering its third weekend, a point where the audience for a well-liked film generally stabilizes and the film starts to see stronger holds. Assuming Encanto is as well-liked by audiences as it is by critics, I’m expecting to see it drop somewhere around 45% this weekend for a gross of $7 million in second place. As for Afterlife, in spite of its supercharged Thanksgiving causing it to peter out a bit quicker than one would expect, I do know that there are pockets of people who haven’t seen it, and given that this is a weak weekend outside of West Side Story, I am expecting the film to also see a 45% drop to $5.66 million in third place.

After National Champions in a potential fourth place (I’m gonna give it the benefit of the doubt), the rest of the top ten looks to be all holdovers that are likely to drop pretty precipitously for a variety of reasons. I see House of Gucci coming in fifth place (once again, assuming National Champions even makes it to the top ten) with another 50% drop. I know that I said above that a well-like film usually sees its audience stabilize in the third week with a strong hold than usual, but House of Gucci‘s notices still seem mixed. To the film’s credit, audiences do seem to like it more than critics and the film is muscling its way through as best as it can, so there is a distinct possibility that it could see a 45% drop or even less. However, the presence of West Side Story is likely to eat into the film’s audience no matter what given that they are targetting very similar demographics and given the fact that West Side Story is a more well-known “brand” (plus better reviews don’t hurt it either). Conservatively, I’m expecting a drop of around 50% for a gross of $3.5 million, but I could absolutely see it going lower.,

In sixth place, expect to see Eternals, dropping 50% for a gross of $2.04 million as it continues to shed viewers from its already depressed audience base, especially now that said audience is moving on to a new Marvel movie next week. Eternals is officially old news. Funny enough, the aesthetically similar Dune is looking to take seventh place right behind it, but with a much stronger hold of around 15% for a gross of $1.56 million. Similarly to House of Gucci, there is a distinct possibility that Dune could see a larger drop in the wake of West Side Story, but unlike House of Gucci, I have a lot more confidence in Dune‘s audience given just how long its been out and especially now that it is solely playing in theaters and not on HBO Max. Its IMAX re-release this month also helps and will likely secure it at least a solid hold this weekend as it continues to trudge forward. As much I am disappointed that it will likely not make it to $400 million worldwide, I am continuously impressed with how long it has been able to stay in the top 10. That sequel is looking more and more like a breakout hit.

Closing out the last three spots, eighth place is likely to go to Christmas with The Chosen, last weekend’s miracle child which smartly took advantage of the lull in releases to explode onto the scene with a splashy (for a special event picture) $4 million gross. The film will be finishing out its run this weekend, and while I’m positive the audience for it is still quite strong (it’s up to a gross of $11.4 million), generally, event pictures tend to fall hard in their second weekends as the audience that they were targetting tends to come out in bulk primarily for the first weekend. I’m expecting to see a very large drop of around 65-70% for a gross of $1.3-1.5 million, which would still be just fine for this picture given that it will likely be retaining its place in the top ten.

Finally, ninth and tenth places are likely to go to Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City and Clifford, the Big Red Dog, each dropping with around 60% for respective grosses of $1.07 million and $846K. Resident Evil‘s drop makes sense as the film hasn’t had particularly strong legs or reviews to sustain audience interest (it will work better on streaming, I can feel it), but Clifford‘s drop does surprise me. I’d be happy to be proven wrong here, but Clifford is just not holding the way I would expect it to, especially given that it is a family film based on a well-known property. Even with reviews that aren’t stellar, many of these kinds of movies generally tend to find an audience and leg on sheer curiosity (just looks at the first Angry Birds movie). Maybe it’s due to the pandemic, and maybe it’s because the film is also playing on Paramount+, but it’s just not holding up the way it should. A sequel is reportedly in development, and we still need to see what the overseas box office looks like (though, right now it is soft), but as of now, if a sequel does indeed get made, expect it to go straight to Paramount+ with no theatrical release.

Quickly taking a look a the specialty market, there are technically three movies set for limited releases that are of any note. That said, two of them, Being the Ricardos from Amazon and Don’t Look Up from Netflix, are essentially streaming releases and will only be in theaters for roughly two weeks prior to being made available on their respective service. As a result, I’m not expecting anything noteworthy to come out of either of them, especially given that Netflix doesn’t even report theatrical grosses for its films. Amazon has a much better track record in that department, but I’m viewing these releases solely as an Oscar formality. The real “star” of the specialty market this weekend (that’s a bit punny) is looking to be Sean Baker’s Red Rocket. Following a porn star who returns to his hometown in Texas due to financial troubles, the film stars Simon Rex (who, in a bit of Soderbergh-ian casting, was actually a teenaged porn star before becoming an actor) as is the most recent example of acclaimed director Sean Baker taking a look into the lives of lower-class Americans that we rarely see on screen. Not his first film dealing with porn stars/sex workers (he also did the movie Starlet as well as the more well-known Tangerine which follows two trans sex workers on Christmas Eve), Red Rocket has come off the festival circuit as one of the most acclaimed films of the year. Being released by A24, who is pushing Rex heavily for an Oscar nomination, the main question here really looks to be just how many theaters Red Rocket is going to get released in. A24 made the smart choice a few weeks ago to release their other, more conventionally awards-friendly film, C’mon C’mon, in just four theaters for its opening weekend where it got a sizeable per-theater average that A24 has been able to parlay into a solid rollout at the film expands its theater count. However, for most of A24’s movies this year, largely due to the pandemic, many have seen much wider releases than they usually would have (for example, the highly stylistic The Green Knight, one of the best movies of the year, was given a conventional wide release back in July). Given that Red Rocket is a comedy, I can see there being a thought to release it in several hundred theaters this weekend to give it a bigger gross. I hope, however, if A24 is serious about making the film an Oscar competitor (they did manage to get Baker’s last film an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for Willem Dafoe), that they stick to the four to five theater release this weekend. Red Rocket has the buzz, so just let it do its thing.

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