In the wake of a certain sentiment surrounding West Side Story‘s box office and audience appeal, I can’t help but think about In The Heights and why both these films landed with a thud their respective opening weeks in the year of our Lord 2021. Here are my thoughts:
As I’ll talk about in a later post (see it here), this past weekend at the box office was really weak. I’ve alluded to why this might be the case in past posts, that being that Spider-Man: No Way Home is coming out next weekend and, given the hustle and bustle of the holiday season (full of things to do and presents to buy) many may be saving their money to buy a ticket (or three) for next weekend’s Spidey movie, arguable the hottest ticket of the year. I don’t condemn this (I’m thoroughly looking forward to that movie) but it does feel a bit said that as a result, many films this month are getting left by the wayside. Still, this is admittedly typical of December, a month where tons of movies get released either A) for awards consideration, or B) in the hopes that they leg out into January and become sleeper hits (or even just moderate successes). What’s frankly more upsetting to me is that West Side Story‘s admittedly dismal opening weekend of $10.5 million seems to be inciting an attitude that I really take umbrage with. I can’t tell you how many tweets, blog posts, articles, and reviewers I’ve seen jumping to blame audiences for letting such an incredible film like Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story “die,” especially as they, in the same breath, bemoan that No Way Home, a comic-book superhero movie, will likely shatter records and rake in tons of cash while comparatively mediocre in their eyes. Now I personally don’t think that box office performance perfectly equates to quality. Hell, the original Suicide Squad movie actually made a killing in theaters with a worldwide gross of $746 million despite being what is honestly one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. That said, I do think that it is fair to whine about how West Side Story did this weekend and use that talk about another movie that hasn’t come out yet. Do I believe that Spider-Man played a part in this weekend’s gross for the Steven Spielberg feature? Absolutely. Is it all Spider-Man‘s fault? No. And it is not that audiences are stupid either; not that they have bad taste and/or can’t appreciate good art (the amount of times I’ve seen that argument thrown around is insane and makes me want to vomit). The fact is that filmmaking, on this scale, is a business. Audiences are consumers and movies are the product. Economics plays a part, people don’t have unlimited amounts of money to spend of going to theaters, not the time; in fact, most regular people only go to the movies about once a month, at most. West Side Story “tanking” this weekend (it’s bad, yes, but its not game over just yet), I feel is the result of a few different factors, specifically from a business standpoint. Those factors are crucial to understanding just what happened in this case and other trends happening at large with the movie industry, and for our purposes of discussion, we actually have a strong comparison through which to view these factors and trends.
It’s admittedly fascinating to see West Side Story come out this year thanks to the presence of another film musical featuring a large Latino cast, that being In the Heights. Also based on a stage musical, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical of the same name which hit Broadway in 2008, In the Heights‘ position as a Latino-led musical featuring strong creative auspices and coming from Warner Bros. led to something of a playful-ish rivalry being created between it and West Side Story, one which was undeniably exacerbated by the fact that West Side Story‘s nature as a 20th Century Fox holdover led to it essentially becoming a de facto Disney film due to the latter’s acquisition of the former, further fueling the decades-long rivalry between the studios (going even as far back as to 1964 with the releases of Warner’s My Fair Lady adaptation and Disney’s Mary Poppins, an incredibly fascinating piece of Hollywood history). Given that Spielberg was directing the film and his long time collaborator, Tony Kushner, was writing it, there was a sect of the audience that would come to consider, fairly or unfairly, West Side Story to be the inferior, inauthentic product for Latino audiences coming out this year, whereas In the Heights, which was born from Latino creators in stage-form and shepherded to the screen by Lin-Manuel Miranda as a producer and with a non-white director helming (John M. Chu of Crazy Rich Asians fame; also a Warner Bros. film), was viewed favorably as the “the real thing.” This was much earlier in the year, and my oh my, how the tables have turned.
In the Heights was released in June of this year to much online fan fair and critical acclaim, citing the performances, musical numbers, authenticity, and themes as wonderful and noteworthy. However, this acclaim did not translate into box office revenue as the film flopped hard, grossing only $43.9 million on a budget of $55 million (and an estimated break-even of $200 million). What happened? Well, there were many factors and directions in which to point fingers. The automatic destination for said fingerpointing was toward HBO Max, where the film was streaming concurrently during its first 31-days of release in accordance with Warner Bros. 2021 scheme to boost subscriptions to their fledging SVOD service as well as (and I feel this must be stated because Warner Bros. is being put through the wringer for this decision, and a bit unfairly at that) to give themselves a bit of a cushion and some security while releasing films during the pandemic. In hindsight, this was the wrong move, there’s no denying it, but you have to give WB props for taking a big swing and trying to do what they can to release their films, even if that swing missed. Tangent-aside, many argued that the film’s opening weekend and subsequently run was kneecapped by its concurrent streaming availability, which drew away customers from paying to see the film in theaters, and which resulted in a lower box office as they watched the film at home. Now, that is absolutely a factor, and I am sure that some contingent of people did indeed skip out on seeing In the Heights in theaters out of concern for COVID and frankly the convenience of at-home viewing as well. However, as pointed out by Scott Mendelson of Forbes, that theory does begin to lose some traction when you step back and look at the numbers.
The fact is that, generally, Warner Bros. films that performed well in theaters also did solid numbers on HBO Max, suggesting that if audiences really wanted to see the movie, they saw it in theaters and then rewatched them later at home multiple times, whereas WB films with bad box office numbers generally drew in noticeably less viewership on HBO Max than their more successful theatrical titles, suggesting that audiences really didn’t care to see the films either way. Case in point, Warner’s top performers this year, Godzilla vs Kong and Dune (interesting pair) with $467.8 million worldwide and $383.1 million worldwide, respectively, pulled in 3.6 million households and 1.9 million households for their respective opening weekends (according to Samba TV) while In the Heights only pulled in 693k households. Far from an isolated incidence, if you were to compare the box office performances of all of Warner’s slate this year with their Samba TV opening weekend numbers, you would see this same pattern of highly anticipated properties (usually based on existing IP) opening big on streaming, while low-key, non-event films barely registered. Looking at the numbers, WB films like Tom & Jerry, a fun, kid-friendly romp based on the iconic characters, and The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, the third installment of the beloved horror franchise both pulled in 1.2 million and 1.6 million households, respectively, on opening weekend while concurrently going on to have surprisingly strong runs at the pandemic-depressed box office. Tom & Jerry came out of nowhere to deliver a $14 million opening weekend (the highest of the pandemic at the time) and legged out to a respectable $46 million domestic and a gargantuan (compared to expectations) $132 million worldwide, while The Conjuring 3, despite an understandably depressed box office gross due to the pandemic as well as it coming out five years after the last one, still opened to $24.1 million, legged out to $65.5 million, and took in $200 million worldwide on a budget of just $40 million. Neither film saw much of a loss at the box office (with Tom & Jerry arguably overperforming, maybe due to increased awareness thanks to its streaming availability) due to being able to stream either on HBO MAx for the first month of release.
Comparatively, WB films that didn’t have that kind of recognition factor, or really any other driving factor that made them a “must-see” in theaters, both bombed at the box office as well as on HBO Max. Judas and Black Messiah, despite high acclaim (include Oscar nominations and wins), bombed thanks to lacking any really name recognition for its cast (Get Out‘s Daniel Kaluuya notwithstanding), taking in only $5.4 million domestically, $7 million worldwide, and just 653k households on opening weekend. The Hugh Jackman sci-fi vehicle, Reminiscence, tanked with $3.9 million domestic (one of the losest grosses ever for a wide release) and $11,5 million worldwide, which tracks as Jackman has never really been a draw for audiences (with X-Men, the franchise was the draw while with The Greatest Showman, the music was the draw). It also tanked on HBO Max with 842K households at opening. Malignant, a James Wan horror movie that wasn’t a Conjuring film or a Saw film, as well as Cry Macho, a Clint Eastwood movie that was under-advertised and aimed at older audiences (who have been both reluctant to return to theaters in the wake of the virus and are less likely to use HBO Max given that they’re usually not as tech-savvy), both also bombed with respective worldwide grosses of $33.9 million and $13.6 million as well as 753k and 695K households on opening weekend. Those for films were all films that audiences, for a variety of reasons (lack of recognizable characters that they cared about, no interest in the actors or the story, etc…), just didn’t care to see, and the box office numbers and HBO Max viewership does back that up.
To be fair, there are some exceptions to these patterns. Mortal Kombat, Space Jam: A New Legacy, and The Suicide Squad all were big box office disappointments yet drove strong viewership according to SambaTV; none of fell below 2 million households who viewed the films on opening weekend, with Mortal Kombat having the highest SambaTV debut of the entire year with 3.8 million household tuning in. Surprisingly enough though, the pattern still kind of holds for Mortal Kombat and Space Jam 2 as while neither was a hit, each has a strong opening weekend (Mortal Kombat opened to $23.3 million and Space Jam 2 saw $31 million). Each of the films was poorly received, but a strong opening weekend box office ended up coinciding with strong debut streaming viewership in both cases. The Suicide Squad did not have a strong opening weekend but was still generating a lot of interest as a DC film which likely jazzed up the streaming numbers. On the flip side The Little Things, a 90’s throwback mystery thriller, and Those Who Wish Me Dead, a really well-crafted thriller set during a forest fire and starring Angelina Jolie, also tanked at the box office yet still drove stronger viewership than most over films (1.4 million and 1.2 million household respectively) largely, I would argue, thanks to having recognizable, big-name actors as their stars. Meanwhile, The Many Saint of Newark Sopranos-prequel also bombed, but netted an opening weekend with 1 million households thanks, I believe, to being an extension of a name brand as well as having the entire series streaming on HBO Max right next to the movie.
So what does all that say about In the Heights? In simplest terms, it means that the film was never as anticipated as the internet made it out to be, and when thinking globally, that makes complete sense. Sure, it’s a Lin-Manuel Miranda product in a year where he has been incredibly prolific, and given the popularity of Hamilton and Moana, you wouldn’t be mistaken for thinking Miranda to a brand in and of himself. However, it’s also a film based on a musical that is not very well known outside of Broadway aficionados and Lin-Manuel Miranda completists. Sure, it won the Tony for Best Musical in 2008, but if you aren’t entrenched in the Broadway scene (like most audiences), it feels more “inside baseball” than mainstream. Compounded with the fact that the film didn’t feature any real box office draws in front of or behind the camera (probably why its budget was lower than West Side Story; $55 million to $100 million), In the Heights wasn’t set up for success and promptly crashed and burned. To their credit, Warner did roll out the marketing red-carpet for the film, with free early screenings galore for fans of Miranda’s to generate as much buzz as possible. Unfortunately, this more than likely played into the film’s flop as it was Miranda fans that were going to be the most willing to show up to theaters. With many having already seen the film for free, there were few if any paying customers left.
In summation, In the Heights went down for the count because, frankly, no one was really asking for it. I’m willing to bet money that if it had been a Hamilton adaptation, a property that managed to break out of the Broadway bubble and become a cultural phenomenon, thus more recognizable mainstream audiences, that it would have been a gigantic hit. This didn’t happen though, and Warner bet instead on a a property that was, for all intents and purposes, new to many people (especially if you weren’t already into musicals) and thus already a much tougher sell in a market that is unforgiving to most original films even sans COVID.
Ironically, something that absolutely did not help the film’s performance in the slightest was actually the very presence of West Side Story, whose first teaser trailer was dropped during the Oscars, two months prior to the release of its competitor. The absolutely stunning and evocative teaser, featuring Spielberg’s reliably incredible camerawork, stunningly back-lit tableaus, vivid colors, perfect choreography, and Rita Moreno’s quietly moving singing in the background, gave the distinct impression that despite this film being a retread of the original, it still had the potential to knock your socks off. Sure enough, the reviews that came pouring in for the film last week almost unanimously praised the film as another masterwork from the world’s most famous director. Questions as to the necessity of a West Side Story-remake aside, nearly every review takes is time to highlight the performances (including a breakout performance from Zegler that has just thrust her into the Best Actress race), the choreography, cinematography, production values, and overall atmosphere of the film as flawless, reminding many reviewers why they fell in love with the movie in the first place, and fully delivering on that incredibly teaser eight months ago. As opposed to In the Heights, with the power of Spielberg, brand recognition, and the Mouse-House itself all backing West Side Story, the film is totally set up for success. The question was, just how far was it going to go?
This weekend, got our answer, and it is not the one many were hoping for. Debuting on Thursday night with preview grosses of about $800K (in line with, and even greater in some cases, than other recent Spielberg-helmed adult dramas like Bridge of Spies, which opened to $15 million), this only translated into a harsh $4.1 million Friday gross. Perhaps the preview grosses should have an immediate sign of weakness as that gross was actually less than In the Heights preview of roughly $1.7 million, which resulted in an $11.5 million opening, and more in line with Dear Evan Hansen‘s preview grosses, which only translated into a $7.4 million opening. Sure enough, West Side Story opened to an estimated $10.5 million domestically, only growing to $14.9 million when international grosses are added in. It will likely make any reader who is familiar with the critically-maligned film adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen shudder to hear West Side Story compared to it, but what should be even more shocking is that while Dear Evan Hansen can hide, to some degree, behind negative reviews and partly blame critics for steering audiences away, West Side Story has no such excuses. Its reviews are glowing, its still being considered an Oscar heavyweight, and it is written and directed by two of the most acclaimed and popular people to ever work in Hollywood (obviously Steven Spielberg more than Tony Kushner, but you get what I mean). Its performance also cannot be blamed on mainstream appeal as with In the Heights since West Side Story is one of the most popular musicals of all time. The 1961 film adaptation, building on that success, is also considered to be one of the best movies ever made. Sure, it received plenty of criticism today for its use of brown fact and the casting of white actors in Latino roles, but even the film’s harshest critics are hard-pressed to find any fault in Robert Wise’s direction, the impeccably choreographed musical and dance numbers, and of course, Rita Moreno’s icon performance as Anita. That film won ten Oscars, including Best Picture and Director, but also largely in the technical categories which speaks to the high standard of filmmaking craft that 1961 West Side Story embodies. So how does a remake of that film, helmed by Spielberg and being touted as having even better technical craft than the ’61 version, land with such a thud in theaters?
Interestingly, and to many, sadly enough, it’s for the exact same reason as In the Heights: a lack of mainstream appeal to general audiences. Now, there is some nuance to be had in this statement, as the manner in which In the Heights and West Side Story lack audience interest is vastly different. Where In The Heights plays much more “inside baseball” than the average moviegoer does, West Side Story‘s lack of interest stems from it being a remake. That might seem a bit simplistic, and almost crazy given everything I just wrote about how acclaimed the original is. Plus, we’ve seen remakes of popular films do very well. For evidence, I would direct you to nearly the entirety of Disney’s live-action, non-Marvel or Star Wars-related film slate for essentially the last decade. Their remake of Alice and Wonderland was a runaway success, becoming one of the first billion dollar-grossing films, and their Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Lion King remakes (Lion King being essentially shot-for-shot) have all followed suit. Even offshoots like Maleficient and Cruella have strayed from the regular remake formula and still found incredible success (Cruella, a pandemic release with a concurrent Disney+ window, obviously didn’t come anywhere close to Maleficient‘s grosses, but still managed to make a shockingly strong showing at the box office all things considered). Now here comes Disney once again with another remake of a musical feature film backed by some of the acclaimed talent ever in Hollywood, and yet it bombs. What gives?
The important thing to note with the previously mentioned Disney films is that (aside from West Side Story technically being a Fox film), is that while those films, outside of Maleficient and Cruella, didn’t make any real changes to their stories, they did still bring something new to the table by the very nature of them being live-action remakes of previously beloved animated films. That is the central issue with West Side Story; by all accounts, it really doesn’t bring anything new to the table. Sure, some story elements have changed, some scenes moved around, and the dialogue, according to those who have watched the film, is able to make more explicit many issues and scenarios that the original film could only hint at, but at the end of the day, it is still “Romeo & Juliet with 60s New York gangs” (not even the time period has changed in this new version). Funny enough, it can be argued that the 1961 West Side Story actually took the Disney approach to its adaptation as the “new to the table” element in that production was itself a change of mediums, theater to film.
The fact is that most successful remakes usually bring something new to the setup of the film, for the very fact that in order to get audiences to be willing to actually pay to watch the film, you’ve got to give them some kind of incentive. For a non-Disney example, take A Star is Born, of which there are a whopping four filmed versions of the same story. The 1937 version with Janet Gaynor and Friedrich March is the original story of the aspiring actress who falls for the fading movie star and has to contend with his alcoholism, which worsens as her star rises and his falls further down, eventually culminating in his suicide (that sounds horrifically depressing as I read that back). The 1956 remake, starring Judy Garland and James Mason this time around, is the same story but was made into a musical in this version (likely done specifically to serve Judy Garland’s strengths as it was intended as something of a comeback vehicle for her). The 1976 remake took the musical angle even further, casting Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson and setting the film, not in the movie industry but instead against the backdrop of the music business and following a young singer who falls for a fading Rock’n’Roll star. The most recent 2018 adaptation saw its differences come through by being set in our modern times as well as having the music feature a clash between more country music and pop (plus the casting of Lady Gaga in her first lead role in a film carried a lot of cache).
In that regard what did West Side Story, if anything, really bring to the table that was fresh for this adaptation. Many will be quick to say diversity, and yes, this new version’s biggest change from the ’61 version is that it casts Latino/darker-skinned actors in the Latino/darker-skinned roles, as opposed to having Rita Moreno be the only actually Puerto Rican playing a Puerto Rican in the film. This quality of the movie, since its inception, has arguably been it’s most vaunted. Several pundits have voiced their enthusiasm over the past few years for this film not just on the basis of the fact that Spielberg was helming a musical, but that this film’s very existence would serve as a correction to the original prime mistake. Sure enough, that aspect has continued to show up in many of the reviews for the film, and while it is not the central reason, it is a very big reason as to why 2021’s West Side Story is being hailed as surpassing the original by a large number of critics and industry outlets.
This enthusiasm is not wrong, and it is wonderful to see people so happy about this piece of classical filmmaking as films with this level of craft and attention to detail are becoming a dying breed as streaming becomes more pervasive and fewer and fewer studios are willing to take a chance on a property like this. However, despite all the good it does to have a film like this feature an ethnically appropriate cast, having that ethnically appropriate case is itself, not a box office draw. Saying that in this day and age may seem a bit blasphemous, especially in the face of immense successes like that of Black Panther, Shang-Chi, and even Crazy Rich Asians, which all powered their ways to impressive box office feats; Black Panther becoming one of the highest-grossing films ever made (and undoubtedly the highest-grossing with a primarily black cast), Shang-Chi has the highest-grossing opening for a Labor Day weekend release and is one of the highest-grossing films of the year (in a pandemic no less), and Crazy Rich Asians was one of the best performing romantic comedies in a decade around the time of its release. However, peel a layer back and we see that while diverse casting did indeed play a factor in garnering interest in those films, it was not truly the driving factor. In the cases of Shang-Chi and Black Panther, the driving force behind their success is obvious. They are Marvel movies. Both are parts of the most popular franchise in the world, which breaks box office records on a regular basis. Sure, both were risky, not just because of their diverse casts but also because each was centered around a character, particularly in the case of Shang-Chi, who hasn’t been nearly as popular in the comics as other characters who’ve received film adaptations. However, both films had the Marvel brand to fall back on, a brand that is like catnip to moviegoers whose name could lure people into the theater. To be clear, these films also found success because they are each very well-made films, acted out by strong casts whose differing ethnicity from the norm of what we usually see in blockbusters added value and freshness to the films, but there is no denying that the Marvel brand itself did a lot of heavy lifting here. If it was truly the cast’s skin color or background that was the selling point, then a movie like Snake Eyes, which was sold more on the fact that its lead and the main cast was Asian than the fact that it was a G.I. Joe movie (a franchise with little appeal to moviegoers), would have done much better at the box office. Going even further, if the diversity of the cast was a real draw to moviegoers, then Eternals may have actually been able to power past mixed reviews and not currently be flopping.
So what of Crazy Rich Asians? That film did not have a popular brand to fall back on. Sure it was based on a popular book, but so are many films that come and go without any lasting impression. To be fair, the book-to-film treatment of Crazy Rich Asians did do something to make it feel fresh. Like how 1961’s West Side Story had freshness by being a film adaptation of a theater production, turning Crazy Rich Asians from a book into a film gave many moviegoers the sense that they were “discovering” the story for the first time. That said, it is undeniable that part of the appeal of Crazy Rich Asians came from it just being a straight-up rom-com. No frills or flourishes, no mixing of genres (it wasn’t a spy-action romantic comedy in the vein of Mr. & Mrs. Smith, not a period rom-com like Emma, not even a zombie rom-com like Warm Bodies), just a straightforward, fish-out-of-water comedy whose main plot focused on a romance. That might not seem like that big of a deal, but if you really think about it, the vast majority of romantic comedies these days aren’t usually receiving theatrically releases. Instead, they are more likely to be found on streaming services, like that of the well-regarded Set It Up, the uber-popular Kissing Booth and To All the Boys… films, or even the much more recent (and super fun) Love Hard. The romantic comedy genre is considered to be too risky of a prospect for a theatrical release these days alongside mega-blockbusters which pull audiences away. Released in August of 2018, Crazy Rich Asians felt fresh and excited for the very reason that the kind of movie it was has been largely absent from theaters for quite some, especially given that it was released alongside The Meg, a fun, goofy action movie that was on the total opposite side of the genre spectrum. Crazy Rich Asians essentially played like counterprogramming. That factor, plus a strong marketing campaign from Warner Bros, is what ended up driving people to see it in theaters, while that fact that it was just a really good movie and happened to feature the first all-Asian cast in a studio film since The Joy Luck Club made it feel all the more interesting and enjoyable and helped to drive word of mouth.
All this brings us back to this weekend’s West Side Story, which, outside of its cast (which is great and has received heaps of praise), really doesn’t do anything new. To audiences, the film and its marketing read less like a new story and more like a new edition/translation of an old one, which may appeal greatly to academics and critics in the field, but not nearly as much to the wider audience. With that, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story lands in theaters this weekend with a thud. Perhaps some things could have been done (I still think that it would have done infinitely better had it opened last weekend), but that fact is that the film’s appeal was blunted from the start for the very reason that it exists solely as a remake of an already acclaimed film and nothing else. Does that mean this $100 million production is fully doomed to failure as we head into the Christmas corridor? Not necessarily. The Christmas frame has allowed many films to leg out well beyond what they would have ever been expected to. Perhaps most famously, The Greatest Showman, another musical (that had worse reviews for that matter), was able to climb from a dismal $8.8 million opening weekend, all the way to a staggering $174.3 million domestic gross (over 11x its opening) and $433 million worldwide on the strength of its music alone. West Side Story also has the Oscar cycle coming up, which will give it a ton of exposure and keep it top of mind for many audiences which could lead its audience to grow in the coming weeks and/or months.
West Side Story is certainly not dead yet, but it is starting from a place of weakness; and contrary to what seems to be a popular opinion, that weakness is not the fault of an audience that doesn’t appreciate diversity or impeccable filmmaking craft. It’s weakness is that for all its majesty as a piece of cinema, it doesn’t offer audiences anything new. It doesn’t offer the general public an incentive to drop $12-15 so see a movie that, for all intents and purposes, has been made before and is easily available for a lower price on demand. Frankly, as disheartening as it might be, that is just the market at hand.