Box Office: ‘West Side Story’ Disappoints With Poor $4.1 Million Friday

West Side Story (review) topped the Friday box office with a mediocre $4.1 million gross. Even noting still-potent Covid variables keeping older viewers out of cinemas, this is below the $5 million Friday for In the Heights. In early 2021, many of us hoped for a good-natured Godzilla Vs. Kong-style duel between Steven Spielberg’s Hispanic-centric musical and Jon M. Chu’s Hispanic-centric musical. It was expected to be a “no matter who wins, we win” match between old-school nostalgia and of-the-moment topicality, with two well-reviewed and well-received big-studio musicals reestablishing the pre-Covid reliability of the musical as a “folks will leave the house for it” sub-genre. In the Heights earned just $11.5 million on opening weekend, while West Side Story may not crack $10 million for the weekend.

Many mistook online interest and demographically-specific media passion for general audience interest in In the Heights. Even Warner Bros. knew that hype wasn’t extending beyond Film Twitter. Conversely, the only reason any of us thought a newfangled West Side Story would score in 2021 was that Steven Spielberg was in the director’s chair. That helped make Ready Player One gross $581 million worldwide in 2018. It didn’t remotely move the needle in summer 2016 with The BFG ($195 million on a $140 million budget). Spielberg’s recent historical dramas (War Horse, Bridge of Spies and The Post) have been decent-sized hits (Lincoln grossed $275 million in 2012). However, two of those had Tom Hanks as a real-life good-guy (his most bankable role). West Side Story had zero butts-in-seats stars.

The long-term picture is slightly more complicated than it was for the Anthony Ramos/Melissa Barrera musical. Rave reviews and the Spielberg factor still place West Side Story in the thick of the Oscar race. A big opening would have arguably turned it into a front-runner, but Disney still views the 20th Century release as their top contender. Warner Bros. is juggling Dune and King Richard. Moreover, this is December, and slow-to-grow movies targeting adults can have ridiculous legs over the holiday season. The two-week year-end portion where everyone is off school and/or off-work turns a bunch of weekdays into glorified weekends. The Greatest Showman wouldn’t have legged out to $174 million from a $13.5 million Wed-Sun debut had it opened in the middle of the summer.

I’m not saying that West Side Story will pull Greatest Showman legs. A Cinemascore grade notwithstanding, it’s a known quantity, is longer and less-kid-friendly and has (spoiler) a downer ending. But legs like The Mule ($104 million from a $17.5 million debut in 2018) or Jumanji: The Next Level ($315 million/$59 million in 2019) get West Side Story to $55-$60 million domestic. The best-case scenario, however unlikely, is legs like The Emperor’s New Groove ($89 million from a $9.8 million debut on this weekend in 2000), which would still give it an objectively underwhelming $91 million domestic finish. I’m optimistic it will leg out over the holidays, but when you’re a $100 million movie dealing with $10 million opening, even normal-for-December legs may not be enough.

Speaking of nobody showing up for the kind of intelligent, adult-skewing, inclusive, non-franchise films we all claim to want, STX Entertainment essentially snuck National Champions into 1,200 theaters yesterday. The of-the-moment drama, about a star college football player who tries to get his teammates (and the opposing team) to sit out on the championship game to demand that NCAA athletes be paid, is penned by Adam Mervis and directed by Ric Roman Waugh. It’s a high-quality, nuanced old-school studio programmer, with solid performances from Stephan James, J.K. Simmons, Uzo Aduba and Jeffrey Donovan. The film earned $120,000 yesterday for a likely $320,000 opening weekend. Not counting various reissues (especially ones last year), that’s the 17th -lowest per-theater average ever for a wide release.

This STX release cost around $8 million with an, uh, “efficient” marketing campaign, so the studio hopes that the theatrical exposure, however small in terms of revenue, will boost the film’s profile as a PVOD title (followed by pay TV revenue). That may be cynical, but it may also be the only commercially viable way to justify releasing films like this in theaters. National Champions, which is worth your time and money, is the kind of “what we say we want” flick that gets ignored in theaters only to momentarily become a much-watched film when it arrives on Netflix. As much as streaming is discussed as a replacement for theatrical exhibition, the platforms still rely on forgotten or ignored studio programmers as comparatively A-level content alongside the media-friendly originals.

On Friday, Netflix’s top two movies were Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway (which opened just this past summer and earned $152 million on a $45 million budget) and Law Abiding Citizen. I’m old enough to remember when an original, R-rated, high-concept thriller starring Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler could be a hit with $128 million worldwide on a $50 million budget. Speaking of rereleases, the only other “new release” of note this weekend is Warner Bros.’ reissue of The Matrix. The Wachowskis’ trendsetting smash got a first-ever IMAX release obviously timed to the upcoming debut of Matrix: Resurrections on December 22. The Keanu Reeves/Laurence Fishburne/Carrie-Anne Moss/Hugo Weaving flick earned $78,000 in 700 theaters for a likely $215,000 weekend. That’s still a better per-theater average than National Champions.

The Tycoon Herald