There was a lot of hope from theater owners and industry observers that Warner Bros.’ “In the Heights” would help maintain, or even grow, the recent box office momentum. Instead, the film opened to just $11.4 million and lost what was expected to be an easy No. 1 launch to the third weekend of Paramount’s “A Quiet Place — Part II.” .
With critical acclaim and early Oscar buzz, there had been hope that the Jon M. Chu musical would capture a section of the audience that isn’t interested in horror films like “A Quiet Place” but searching for a feel-good movie after the hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, the film has fallen short of even the most conservative of expectations. Even franchise tentpoles released during the worst stages of the pandemic — “Wonder Woman 1984” opened to $16.7 million on Christmas weekend — have outperformed “In the Heights.”
While there’s still time for the film to turn its fortunes around, there’s a lot of questions about what went wrong with this launch of a film from the director of the 2018 hit “Crazy Rich Asians” based on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pre-“Hamilton” Broadway hit. But there’s one major element surrounding the film’s release that sources say isn’t to blame.
1. Don’t Blame HBO Max
Theaters have long been wary about the box office hit that Warner Bros. films might take this year as the studio is streaming its releases on HBO Max on the same day they open in theaters.
But individuals familiar with the streaming service’s metrics say that none of Warner’s 2021 films, including “In the Heights,” have shown huge differences in streaming vs. theatrical performance. If a film is doing well at the box office, it is also drawing strong viewership and new subscriptions on HBO Max. And studio insiders confirmed that “In the Heights” followed that pattern, showing far lower opening-weekend viewership on HBO Max than other recent titles like “Godzilla vs. Kong” and “Tom & Jerry,” two films which Warner Bros.’ parent company AT&T touted as a major factor in HBO Max gaining 2.7 million new subscribers in the first quarter of 2021.
That isn’t to say that defenders of theatrical exclusivity in the industry aren’t feeling emboldened by what they’ve seen over the last few weeks. “A Quiet Place — Part II,” which has an exclusive 45-day run in theaters before its Paramount+ release, just became the first pandemic-era film to top $100 million domestically after 15 days.
Nor is it to say that HBO Max might weigh down “In the Heights”‘ at the box office over time. More than half of this weekend’s ticket buyers were below the age of 35, and the film will need older audiences that have historically provided late-run support for musicals like “The Greatest Showman” — which turned a $19 million opening weekend into a $174 million domestic run. But with polls showing that older moviegoers, particularly in urban areas, have less enthusiasm in return to theaters than younger audiences, that key age group may skew toward watching the film on streaming.
But at this early stage, there isn’t much evidence supporting the idea that “In the Heights” left a significant amount of opening weekend theatrical revenue on the table with a day-and-date release. It’s not a streaming vs. theatrical problem. It’s an awareness problem.
2. Many Latino neighborhoods did not turn up
While demographic data showed that Latinos showed up in equal numbers to white moviegoers this weekend (44% each), a deeper look at regional turnout shows that the Latino turnout was heavily concentrated in the three top box office markets — New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco — while other regions with Latino-heavy populations underperformed compared to other recent releases.
Studio sources say about half of the top 20 highest grossing theaters for “In the Heights” were located in New York City. This was to be expected, as the film is set in the city’s Washington Heights neighborhood and is based on a Tony-winning musical that had a long run on Broadway.
But nowhere to be seen in that top 20 is Miami or any other city in Florida with a heavy Cuban and Puerto Rican population, a big surprise for analysts who had expected high turnout given the film’s heavy representation of those immigrant communities. While Latinos in Los Angeles turned out, theaters in the surrounding Southern California area underperformed as well. And in Texas, insiders say that theaters in Latino communities didn’t overperform the way they did for the opening of fellow Warner release “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” last weekend.
3. The trailers couldn’t convey the plot
“In the Heights” was touted for its onscreen representation of Latinos, and projected to have a similar effect as the rom-com “Crazy Rich Asians” to ignite an underserved moviegoing audience. But onscreen representation of Latinos, as important and overdue as it is, won’t be enough if uninitiated audiences don’t know what the film is about.
And the story is not something that can be easily summarized. While “In the Heights” is not as plot-averse as the infamous musical bomb “Cats,” the film’s story about a bodega owner contemplating whether to leave his gentrifying neighborhood to return to his father’s homeland of the Dominican Republic is mostly communicated and advanced through song, as are the rest of the film’s subplots.
This can make it more difficult to convey the plot in a nutshell via trailers and marketing. Warner Bros. pulled out all the stops in advertising the film as an event release, emphasizing the film’s vibrant dance scenes and feel-good tone. But a lack of understanding of what the film is actually about may have caused that marketing to fail to reach audiences — even Latino ones — that weren’t already hardcore Lin-Manuel fans thanks to “Hamilton.”
4. Post-pandemic box office recovery will have speed bumps
Time for some self-reflection: Analysts and Hollywood industry press, this site included, got caught up in the hype that filmgoer enthusiasm would keep growing with each new major studio release as pandemic restrictions subside.
The strong turnout for films like “A Quiet Place.” which beat cautious post-pandemic projections, set up too-high hopes for “In the Heights” — especially given its glowing critical reception and the media hype in New York and L.A.
But studio insiders say that Warner Bros. had been expecting an opening in the mid-teens, and while “In the Heights” didn’t clear even that conservative mark, this weekend shows why studios are so wary about box office projections during this pandemic recovery period. It’s also why last month, executives told TheWrap that it would be a huge surprise if any blockbuster, even Marvel Studios’ “Black Widow,” opened above $75-80 million this summer.
“Every studio is looking at each one of these summer films and their release strategies and gathering data in real time about the best way to release them going forward,” Comscore analyst Paul Dergarabedian told TheWrap. “Since it’s such an experimental time for the industry, there’s going to be a lot of trial and error.”
5. Not all hope is lost
While the “In the Heights” was lower than anticipated, there’s still a chance that the film could gain some box office momentum in coming weeks — as the Hugh Jackman musical “The Greatest Showman” turned a slow start in a crowded 2017 holiday season into a $174 million domestic run.
Though “In The Heights” doesn’t have anyone as recognizable as Jackman or Zendaya, it has stronger reviews from critics and even early audiences. Chu’s film landed an A with CinemaScore audiences and a 96% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. That word of mouth could allow the film to leg out a domestic run in the $45-55 million range, which would be a respectable result for a recovery period release on the level of films like “Raya and the Last Dragon.” (It would also come close to the film’s $55 million production budget.)
“Every studio and filmmaker wants the trifecta of critical praise, audience approval and box office success, but sometimes it takes time for the first two goals to bring about the third,” Dergarabedian said. “We still have a lot to learn about what the theatrical market is going to look like going forward and a film that is as widely embraced as ‘In the Heights’ might be able to surprise us if we give it a chance.”
But to get to that $45 million mark, it will need to draw casual audiences who are not just intrigued by the film, but intrigued enough to want to drive out and buy a ticket instead of watching it at home. It will also need to do it without the help of the extra revenue that comes with IMAX and other premium formats, which accounted for 28% of the film’s revenue on Friday and Saturday but will be lost to Universal’s “F9” when that blockbuster is released on June 25.
6. Horror is still king
If there is any silver lining from this weekend, it’s that horror films are continuing to hold on well at the box office. Along with the $100 million milestone for “Quiet Place II,” Warner Bros.’ “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” held decently with just over $10 million grossed in its second weekend to give it a $43.6 million 10-day total, consistent with the pre-pandemic performance of the 2019 “Conjuring” spinoff “Annabelle Comes Home.”
As 2021 rolls on, we will learn more about how moviegoing habits have been changed by the pandemic and whether infrequent moviegoers are becoming more selective about which films they choose to see in theaters and which ones they wait to come out on streaming.
But so far, we’re seeing that horror buffs and casual moviegoers still value seeing this genre in a theater with other people. We will see if other horror franchise films like “The Forever Purge” and “Halloween Kills” can keep the momentum going later this year.