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 box office debut, collecting a paltry $10.5 million from 2,820 theaters. Despite its first-place finish, the film’s inaugural ticket sales are cause for concern because Disney and 20th Century Studios spent $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 Year’s, 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 in its initial weekend 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 recent “Dear Evan Hansen” adaptation, which premiered to $7.4 million, but that’s not exactly a high bar considering “Dear Evan Hansen” was skewered by critics. And, “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 movie consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research, in reference to “Chicago,” which opened to $10 million and eventually earned $170 million in North America. More recently, that was the case with 2017’s original musical “The Greatest Showman,” which stumbled with a measly $8.8 million start. But audiences fell in love with the music and returned to theaters multiple times for sing-along screenings, eventually propelling domestic ticket sales to $171 million. Though it has timeless numbers like “Somewhere” and “America,” it’s unlikely that “West Side Story” songs will return to radio’s top 10 charts and inspire repeat viewings.
“That was then, and this is now. Moviegoing conditions remain impaired,” Gross says.
Based on the 1957 Broadway musical, “West Side Story” was written by Tony Kushner and features mostly unknown stars in Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler, who play ill-fated lovers Tony and Maria. Their romance fuels the area’s rival street gangs, the white Sharks and the Puerto Rican Jets. The ensemble cast also includes Ariana DeBose as Anita, David Alvarez as Bernardo, Mike Faist as Riff and Rita Moreno as Valentina, a newly created role. Reception from ticket buyers has been encouraging (it landed an “A” CinemaScore), but “West Side Story” is not expected to replicate “The Greatest Showman”-level staying power because older audiences — the movie’s core demographic — haven’t been eager to return to the movies. “West Side Story” had a strong turnout on premium large formats (PLF), with IMAX contributing $1 million in domestic ticket sales. Unfortunately, it will lose most of its placement on PLF screens when “Spider-Man: No Way Home” debuts next weekend.
“If ‘West Side Story’ is going to be profitable, it will need to connect internationally as well domestically,” Gross says. So far, international audiences haven’t been particularly receptive to “West Side Story.” The movie has generated $4.4 million from 37 overseas markets, bringing its global tally to $14.9 million.
After October set pandemic box office records, thanks to “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” and “No Time to Die,” movie theater 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, though, is that adult crowds have been staying at home. Most movies that have managed to become 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 almost entirely unseen athletic drama “National Champions.” The film, starring Stephan James and J.K. Simmons, flopped in its debut, bringing in $300,000 from 1,197 theaters. It’s an embarrassing result, even by COVID-19 standards. “National Champions” opened at No. 14 on box office charts behind New Line’s “Elf” re-release; the perennial holiday favorite brought in $343,000 from only 630 theaters. After an exclusive run in theaters, STX is positioning “National Champions” to land on premium video-on-demand platforms to coincide with college football’s title match in January.
In a positive sign for family-centric movies, Disney’s “Encanto” has continued to draw crowds. After two weekends in the No. 1 spot, the animated musical fable has slid to second place with $9.4 million from 3,750 locations. Since opening around Thanksgiving, “Encanto” has amassed $71 million in North America and $150 million globally.
Sony’s “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” has been another popular option, mostly among male moviegoers. In its fourth weekend of release, the sci-fi comedy sequel landed in third place with $7.1 million from 3,815 screens. That takes its North American tally to a respectable $112 million. At No. 4, MGM’s crime drama “House of Gucci” added $4 million over the weekend, boosting its domestic total to $41 million. Disney and Marvel’s “Eternals” rounded out the top five with $3.1 million from 3,030 cinemas. The superhero epic, which opened in early November, has collected $161 million to date.