Can ‘West Side Story’ Ever Feel Pretty After a Weak Box Office Opening? | Analysis

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Even the best-case scenarios aren’t rosy for Steven Spielberg’s $100 million musical

20th Century Studios

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Twentieth Century’s “West Side Story” is in trouble at the box office after a weak $10.5 million opening weekend, and while there’s still a chance to salvage its theatrical run with a Christmas rebound, even the best-case scenarios aren’t particularly pretty for this pricey adaptation of the 1950s Broadway hit and 1961 Oscar winner.

The result that is both lower than the studio’s projections of $13 million and the $11.5 million opening of Warner Bros.’ “In the Heights,” which like Steven Spielberg’s musical opened to rave reviews from critics and audiences but failed to attract widespread interest. And also like “In the Heights,” the question now arises whether strong word-of-mouth can help this film leg out beyond expectations or if it will join other well-reviewed 2021 films aimed at older audiences like “Heights,” “The Last Duel,” “Spencer” and “Respect” that have struggled to sell tickets.

The studio hopes the film can emulate recent musicals like 2017’s “The Greatest Showman” and 2018’s “Mary Poppins Returns,” both of which grossed just under $175 million domestic despite muted debuts during Christmas week. “Poppins,” which was also based on an Oscar-winning classics from the early’ 60s, opened to $32.3 million over five days before adding an additional $82 million between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day.

A mid-December release, with enough audience buzz, can see its fortunes grow once Christmas rolls around and more people go to the movies. That clearly the hope for Disney, which is handling distribution on “West Side Story” after inheriting it from its 2019 Fox acquisition.

Studio insiders tell TheWrap that Disney went with a December 10 release instead of closer to Christmas to give “West Side Story” one week on Imax and other premium formats before those slots were claimed by Sony’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and Warner’s “The Matrix Resurrections.” Premium formats have been even more valuable for films this year than before the pandemic — and accounted for a third of all tickets sold for “West Side Story” this weekend.

This weekend, “West Side Story” will remain in roughly 2,820 screens — though premium screens will make room for “Spider-Man.” While Spidey is on a path to conquer the box office with the first pandemic-era $100 million-plus opening — possibly even $150 million-plus, according to some analysts — that may left space for the musical to find its audience.

That’s especially true because “West Side Story” will need either for younger audiences to squeeze it among all the other year-end blockbuster or for the core demo of older audiences to show up despite mounting concerns about a new winter wave of COVID-19 infections.

20th Century Studios

According to Disney insiders, internal data and polls from research groups say that the recent spread of the Omicron variant hasn’t significantly lowered moviegoing interest the way the Delta variant did last summer. But turnout from moviegoers over 35 is still well below pre-pandemic levels. And that’s even more of a problem for “West Side Story”: 54% of the opening weekend audience was over 35, and the largest subset was audiences age 55 and over at 26%, with the 25-34 group coming in second at 21%.

If that opening turnout is skewing so heavily toward the age group most reluctant to go to theaters, then positive audience word-of-mouth won’t do much to boost ticket sales. And unlike “Spider-Man” and “Matrix,” Spielberg’s film lacks the sort of star power that might lure younger audiences. Even “The Greatest Showman” boasted Hugh Jackman and Zendaya (who’s also a co-star in “Spider-Man”), while Lady Gaga boosted attendance for “House of Gucci” among the under-30 crowd.

But the biggest hurdle for “West Side Story” may be the $100 million price tag, before marketing costs. The film won’t get much help from overseas, where it grossed just $4.4 million from 37 markets this weekend, below the grosses for “Encanto” and “House of Gucci.” International grosses will continue to be depressed both because of blockbuster competition and this musical’s specific connection to American history and culture. So even if “West Side Story” legs out domestically, there’s a chance that it won’t be enough to make the film theatrically profitable.