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When a musical strikes the right chord, a Hollywood studio and filmmakers can mine gold. When it doesn’t, discord abounds.
The Warner Bros. film is based on the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical of the same name, which put Lin-Manuel Miranda on the map before going on to create Hamilton.
Worse than the opening theatrical gross — at least in terms of public relations and headlines — was the fact that In the Heights opened in second place behind A Quiet Place Part II, which shot back up to No. 1 in its third weekend with $12 million — the first surprise box office upset as cinemas take on the Herculean task of recovering from the COVID-19 crisis.
The hope now is that glowing reviews and strong exits lead to increased grosses. “We’re incredibly proud of this movie and hope audiences find it over time,” says Warners president of domestic distribution Jeff Goldstein.
“We knew from the moment we were going to be released on HBO Max that this was more than a box office play. In fact, discovery and word of mouth was always going to have to drive our movie, so we felt we could benefit from the wide availability over time,” Chu tells THR. “Of course, we knew judgment would come from the box office, so it would have been a nice surprise to get that box office opening spark. But we couldn’t have asked for a more well-received movie by reviewers and audience exit polls. As Abuela Claudia has taught us, paciencia y fe is the name of the game.”
In the Heights would have at least been able to claim the domestic box office crown had it not debuted simultaneously on HBO Max considering that only $600,000 stood between it and A Quiet Place II, according to those with access to data. “In actual numbers, the HBO Max release probably didn’t hurt In the Heights that much, but it made a difference in terms of coming in No. 1 instead of No. 2, which impacts the movie over the long term,” says one insider.
That doesn’t mean the movie necessarily impressed on HBO Max. While parent company WarnerMedia doesn’t reveal viewership numbers, executives within the film studio tell The Hollywood Reporter that In the Heights’ performance was also muted on the streaming service, ranking behind the opening weekend viewership of Denzel Washington crime thriller Little Things, which bowed Jan. 29.
Leading research firm Screen Engine won’t disclose viewership numbers since studios are its clients, but it does provide a public ranking of streaming movies. Among all films playing in the home over the June 11-13 weekend — whether via premium VOD or for free on a streaming service — In the Heights ranked third. The top two were fellow Warner Bros. release Mortal Kombat, which hit regular video on demand over the weekend, and new Netflix title Awake.
In stark contrast, Hamilton did bonanza business in the home when Disney sent a filmed version of the hit Broadway musical straight to Disney+ during the worst months of the pandemic in the U.S. (The movie ranked No. 3 on Screen Engine’s 2020 overall list. Again, no public numbers, only a ranking.)
Warner Bros.’ controversial decision to debut its entire 2021 slate simultaneously in cinemas and on HBO Max for a month is an ongoing subject of debate as to how much cannibalization exists, now that theaters have reopened on a mass scale. Analysts agree that making a title available in the home immediately diminishes a sense of urgency to see a movie, whether on opening weekend, or over the course of time.
“My takeaway is that the relative lack of built-in audience and strong dependence on metro markets, some of which are rebounding more slowly than suburban and rural areas, made this drastically less of a must-see film on opening weekend than hoped for,” says Shawn Robbins of BoxOffice Pro. “Perhaps many opted to stream it instead, but frankly, the secrecy around streaming data makes it impossible to determine. Maybe that audience didn’t tune in as strongly as expected either.”
“Either way, given the discrepancy between strong fan presales and the underwhelming turnout from casual moviegoers and walk-up patrons this weekend, I’m not sure the film would have hit the more optimistic projections out there — including our own — even with an exclusive release in theaters. It trended far more niche than it had been hyped up to be for the last year and a half,” Robbins continues.
As the box office recovers from the pandemic, horror and action are faring the best so far in theaters. The sweet spot is moviegoers ages 18-34. Consumers over 35 and especially older females — often the demo that transforms a musical into a hit — are the most reluctant to return to the multiplex, according to NRG surveys.
Even the most successful big-screen musicals haven’t always scored impressive opening numbers at the box office but can enjoy incredible holds in the right circumstances. Whether In the Heights can find its cadence remains a question.
“Musicals require word of mouth to catch on, particularly those that may not be as well-known to most moviegoers, and thus it often takes time for these films to build upon what may at first appear to be a seemingly disappointing first act and then wind up being a hit,” says Comscore’s Paul Dergarabedian. “Let’s not pull the curtain down on In the Heights after just a few days.”
However, Robbins and other box office pundits say the coming weeks will be tough for In the Heights considering the backlog of traditional summer tentpoles that are about to unfurl, including Universal’s Fast and Furious installment F9 and Marvel’s Black Widow.
Several years ago, 20th Century Fox’s musical The Greatest Showman made box office history when opening to a lowly $8.8 million just before Christmas on its way to becoming a January and February sensation. That film grossed $174.3 million domestically, one of the top showings of all time for a non-Disney musical.
Nor did La La Land have a glamorous start, but it likewise began its run on the big screen over the year-end holidays, giving it a runway to play into the first part of the year when the marquee isn’t so crowded compared to summer. (La La Land, released by Lionsgate, ended up earning $151 million at the North American box office.)
The list of upcoming musical tentpoles preparing for their chance to sing in theaters is topped by Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, which — not surprisingly — is slated for a Christmas 2021 release.
A year-end holiday release, however, couldn’t rescue Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the iconic Broadway play Cats, which opened to a mere $6.6 million domestically before topping out at $27.2 million after being ravaged by critics (unlike In the Heights).
Cats may have been a major loss for Universal, but the studio — home of the enormously successful Mamma Mia! and Pitch Perfect franchises — isn’t abandoning the genre and has hired Chu to direct the long-awaited movie adaptation of Broadway’s Wicked. (In addition, Universal is presently prepping for the release of Dear Evan Hansen in late October.)
A decade ago, however, one project that Universal decided not to pursue was In the Heights because of concerns over a proposed budget at that time of $37 million. While In the Heights was a critically acclaimed, Tony-winning musical, the studio had purchased the film rights before Hamilton came along and made Miranda a household name in Hollywood.
In the Heights next landed at Harvey Weinstein’s former company before finding a permanent home at Warner Bros., which brought aboard Chu to direct and OK’d a $50 million-$55 million production budget plus a generous marketing spend. Unless it rights itself, the film is expected to lose money.
Chu, the force behind Warners hit Crazy Rich Asians, is a passionate advocate of making Hollywood event movies for ethnically diverse audiences.
Anthony Ramos, who plays a bodega owner who dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic, leads the ensemble cast of In the Heights, a tale of life on one block in Upper Manhattan’s Washington Heights where members of a mostly Latino community pursue their dreams. Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV and Jimmy Smits also star in the critically acclaimed film, which received an A CinemaScore from audiences.
While Latinos made up 40 percent of all ticket buyers over opening weekend, In the Heights didn’t boast a big turnout in heavily Hispanic markets in Texas, Miami and Southern California that otherwise could have boosted the grosses. Rather, the interest was mostly felt in the New York City area, where five of the film’s top 10 theaters were located. Instead, horror titles The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It and A Quiet Place Part II continued to draw big numbers from ethnically diverse audiences, and particularly with Latinos, who are an avid moviegoing demo.
The movie’s fate was further complicated on Monday when Miranda posted a lengthy apology in response to a vigorous online discussion over the movie’s failure to accurately represent its namesake neighborhood’s Afro-Latino population despite trying to correct the underrepresentation of Latinos in Hollywood.
“I hear that without sufficient dark-skinned Afro-Latino representation, the work feels extractive of the community we wanted so much to represent with pride and joy,” Miranda wrote in a message posted to Twitter. “I’m learning from the feedback, I thank you for raising it, and I’m listening.”
Additional reporting by Rebecca Sun.
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