Even with the likely-to-be-long post-debut legs thanks to the holiday season and the Oscar/awards season, a $10.5 million domestic debut for Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s West Side Story is a genuinely mediocre gross. That’s below the equally disappointing, albeit under different circumstances, $11.5 million launch for Jon M. Chu’s In the Heights in summer 2021, a film that had a concurrent HBO Max availability window. It’s not the lowest wide-release Fri-Sun debut for Spielberg (Always opened with $3.7 million back in 1989), but it’s barely more than Tintin ($9.7 million Fri-Sun over a $17.7 million Wed-Sun debut over Christmas 2011). War Horse opened almost concurrently with $7.5 million on Christmas Day for a $40 million eight-day Sun-Sun debut.
Even if we look at this splashy musical re-adaptation of the 1957 Tony-winning Broadway show (or remake of the 1961 Oscar-winning feature film adaptation) as a “one for me” closer in spirit to War Horse than Ready Player One, this isn’t an inspiring start. As much as we talk about December legs, you need to open or be cheap to capitalize on even best-case-scenario legs. Hook opened on this weekend 30 years ago with a slightly underwhelming $13.5 million (Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country had opened with $17 million the weekend prior), but the Robin Williams/Dustin Hoffman fantasy legged out to $119 million domestic and $300 million worldwide, which was ironically seen as a disappointment.
If West Side Story is as leggy as Hook (or The Emperor’s New Groove, which opened with $9.8 million on this weekend in 2000 and legged out to $89 million), and that’s possible even in these bizarre theatrical circumstances, it’ll end with a frankly face-saving $90-$92 million domestic. No, I don’t think we can rely on Greatest Showman-style legs. First, the Hugh Jackman miracle (which opened with $8.8 million over Fri-Sun and $13.5 million over Wed-Sun) bled right into Christmas and hit pay dirt when kids were out of school and adults were mostly off work during the holidays. When I talk about ridiculous Christmas legs, it’s usually for films that open in the last two weekends of the year.
Those weekends benefit from weekdays that play like weekends. Most kids won’t be out of school until a week from Monday, a difference that even dinged The Last Jedi in terms of post-debut legs (compared to Force Awakens, Rogue One and Rise of Skywalker) four years ago. And once they get out of school, they’ll be feasting on Spider-Man: No Way Home, Sing 2 and (hopefully) The Matrix: Resurrections alongside the likes of Nightmare Alley, Licorice Pizza, The King’s Man and Journal For Jordan. Even aside from the scheduling differentials, The Greatest Showman was an unknown quantity, with original songs no-less, that was 45 minutes shorter than West Side Story, was more kid-friendly and (spoiler) had a happier ending.
A more plausible optimistic result would be a multiplier closer to five or six times the opening weekend (think The Mule in 2018, Annie in 2014 or even Maid In Manhattan in 2002), which would give West Side Story a $50-$61 million finish. That’s assuming it doesn’t leg out all that much, think a 3.5-4x multiplier on par with the likes of The Princess and the Frog ($104 million from a $24 million launch just before Avatar) and end up closer to $40 million than $50 million. And alas, overseas isn’t helping as the film earned just $4.5 million outside of North America. Like Solo: A Star Wars Story in summer 2018, a mediocre domestic launch is now compounded by a brutal overseas rejection.
As for the Oscar race, I’d expect it to stick around. Every Spielberg-directed drama since Amistad in 1997 has ended up in the Best Picture race. Even the lower end of expectations will place it among the top of the awards season contenders, below only Dune ($106 million-and-counting) and House of Gucci ($41 million-and-counting). Moreover, West Side Story is still Disney’s biggest awards season contender, unless Guillermo del Toro’s star-studded film noir thriller Nightmare Alley pulls off a miracle next weekend. Conversely, for those asking, Warner Bros. doesn’t need to push In the Heights because they’ve got King Richard and Dune.
As for “What happened?,” I’ll admit that commercial optimism for the film was pinned on Spielberg’s name on the marquee. Sure, it’s not 1993 or 2002 anymore, but Lincoln earned $275 million worldwide in late 2012, and Ready Player One earned $581 million in 2018. However, absent the Spielberg factor, this is a star-free remake of a much-beloved and much-seen Oscar-winning favorite which found itself pulled between folks who didn’t need to see another version and those who didn’t like the first movie enough to care about an update. Covid variables notwithstanding, West Side Story was important partially because it was a modern-day update of Romeo and Juliet. Quality notwithstanding, perhaps Spielberg should have ripped off rather than remade.
Two concluding thoughts. First, this highlights a discrepancy between theatrical Oscar contenders and streaming ones. Simply put, the poor box office for King Richard, Belfast and West Side Story will impact those films’ awards season narratives while the streaming biggies (Tick… Tick… Boom, The Power of the Dog and Don’t Look Up) don’t have to worry about box office or even streaming viewership. Second, this sadly shows (as was the case with In the Heights) that while diversity and inclusivity can be major added value elements for already commercial features, they don’t move the needle for films that audiences don’t already want to see. I mean, hell, even Marvel’s Eternals is going to sell fewer domestic tickets than The Incredible Hulk.
Speaking of nobody showing up for the kind of intelligent, adult-skewing, inclusive, non-franchise films we all claim to want, STX Entertainment snuck National Champions into 1,200 theaters yesterday. The compelling character 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 just $300,000 over its opening weekend. Not counting various reissues (especially ones last year), that’s the 13th -lowest per-theater average ever for a wide release.
This STX release cost around $8 million with a small 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.