Audiences didn’t open their wallets to see the infamous rivalry between the Sharks and the Jets play out on the big screen.
West Side Story, Steven Spielberg’s remake of the classic musical, fell flat in its US box office debut, collecting a paltry $10.5 million from 2,820 cinemas. That’s cause for concern because Disney and 20th Century Studios spent US$100 million to revive the Shakespearean love story for modern times and stand to lose millions, unless West Side Story endures at the box office through the holidays and Oscar season.
It may be possible to attract moviegoers between Christmas and New Years, but it’s a bad start for one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year – and one that opened exclusively in theaters. Though every new movie-musical has struggled to entice audiences in Covid times, it’s worrisome for both theater operators and traditional studios that West Side Story – one of the most beloved stories in musical theater history and under the direction of Hollywood’s most commercially successful filmmaker – sold fewer tickets than In the Heights ($11.5 million debut), a lesser known song-and-dance property that premiered simultaneously on HBO Max. West Side Story at least earned more than Universal’s Dear Evan Hansen adaptation, which premiered to $7.4 million in September while playing exclusively in cinemas. But that’s not exactly a high bar considering Dear Evan Hansen was skewered by critics. However, In the Heights and Dear Evan Hansen cost far less to make than West Side Story.
“In the past, we’ve seen musicals connect with critics and audiences and go on a run,” says David A Gross, who runs the film consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research. For example, Chicago opened to $10.8 million in 2003 and ultimately earned $170 million, while more recently, The Greatest Showman debuted to $8.8 million and kept chugging along until revenues hit $170 million.
“But that was then, and this is now. Moviegoing conditions remain impaired,” Gross says. “If West Side Story is going to be profitable, it will need to connect internationally as well domestically.”
After October set pandemic box office records, thanks to Venom: Let There Be Carnage and No Time to Die, cinema attendance has taken a downturn. That will change next week when Sony’s comic book sequel Spider-Man: No Way Home hits cinemas. What remains clear, however, is that older audiences haven’t been eager to return to cinemas. Most of the tentpoles that have been commercially successful have been catered to younger males.
West Side Story looks like a blockbuster compared to this weekend’s other new nationwide release, STX’s athletic drama National Champions, which went almost entirely unseen despite playing on more than 1,000 screens. The film, starring Stephan James and JK Simmons, flopped in its debut, bringing in US$300,000 from 1,197 theaters – an embarrassing result even by Covid-19 standards.