“In the Heights” (Warner Bros.) likely won’t be one of the biggest openings of the year. It is expected to rank #1 this weekend ahead of Sony’s “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway,” with at the high end perhaps around where “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” landed last weekend ($24.1 million). But how well it does will provide important clues as to which audiences are returning and raise possibilities for a wider set of movies getting traction.
The Jon M. Chu-directed musical, based on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway production, is set apart from most films released anymore in several important ways. The preopening predictions of its gross — inexact these days, since they mostly poll the more limited audience that already has returned to theaters — suggest under $15 million. That would be under several recent debuts, but as always, the initial number might not tell the full story.
Here are the subplots to note about the result:
This is a rare non-franchise, non-action, or animated release
Nearly all studio films that have opened fit into those categories. That’s hardly a new trend, but the limited range of films so far in 2021 has been extreme. The top 15 films this year to date fit that description, with the highest gross for anything different only $15 million (that’d be “Chaos Walking,” with “The Little Things” close behind it, though both could be said to have action elements).
“In the Heights” is outside those boxes. That difference could enhance its appeal, but audiences so far have only responded to the familiar and conventional. This might be either an advantage or disadvantage, hopefully the former.
It is a rare studio film to celebrate Latino culture and characters
Per Motion Picture Association annual figures, Latinos represent 23 percent of tickets sold, ahead of their 19 percent share of the population. But movies about their lives remain rare. Even when a character is foregrounded — “Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse,” “Hustlers” — they usually are set in a broader ethnic universe.
That’s different from frequent releases with mostly Black characters. It’s closer to the situation with Asian characters (Chu’s “Crazy Rich Asians” a rare exception, and a big success.) The Latino community is as diverse, though it’s hard to find movies that get that.
The Mexican-American community is the largest, but distinctive subcultures from Central and South America surround them. Then the Caribbean communities — Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican (the characters in “Heights”) — are themselves diverse.
Two things to watch for — how strong the non-Latino interest is, and then if the Latino interest is strong across all groups. The latter seems more likely. Latinos show interest normally in a broad range of films with many kinds of characters. But non-Latinos have little experience with a film totally centered on a Latino culture.
Could this be the film that gets older audiences back into theaters?
This is the rare wide release title this year to have all the elements — excellent reviews, originality, older characters, mainstream media attention — that draw occasional older moviegoers into theaters. It has the feel of an event, something different from the more routine offerings so far.
This audience, particularly when upscale, and curious about specialized film, has been lagging in their return to theaters. This sounds like it could appeal to that reluctant group.
What about HBO Max?
As with all Warner Bros. films this year (reverting to 45 day window in 2022), “Heights” will be available free to all of their streaming subscribers from the start. This could affect the adult ticket sales, along with other audiences.
It will be tough to find more than anecdotal evidence for this, but early viewings suggest the film in theaters offers the kind of communal experience that home viewing lacks. Will this incentivize some who can watch at home to buy tickets anyway?
In recent weeks, multiple Warners releases have had respectable or better results despite this alternative. As always, we will get limited data on viewing at the streamer as well as possible new subscribers. But the studio will know this and file it away as key information.
Meantime the bigger the gross, the greater it suggests that theaters can survive streaming play, and possibly at the same time as it gets strong home response.
These days, biofilms with performers (“Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Rocketman”) or dramas about musicians (“A Star Is Born”) are the bulk of the genre. “Heights” however is a true musical — a film where the plot is advanced by characters who in everyday situations sing and dance.
That isn’t all that rare — “Mamma Mia!” and “Les Miserables” in recent years are among the hits. But the genre hit a nadir just before the pandemic with “Cats.”
“Heights” is the first true non-animated musical in theaters since. It is the first of several major ones set for this year including “West Side Story” (Disney), “Dear Evan Hansen” (Universal), and “Cyrano” (United Artists). Disney sold the Fox-produced “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” to Amazon, with theater play uncertain.
This is a top-heavy year for the genre. “Heights” should be an early bellwether of audience interest. And since all these are outside the norm for theatrical film content these days, a welcome plus if successful.
Could this buck the trend of quick fall offs?
While opening weekends have greatly improved, since theaters have come close to full operation and are playing all titles, their holds in subsequent weekends have generally been less than normal. The exceptions have been family films. Whether that’s because of lack of competition, key fans of films wanting to see them early, or otherwise a lack of depth in audience has been unclear.
“Heights” could test this. If the positive reaction is as strong as expected, reluctant audiences get interested, and other resistance to theatergoing subsides — all these could find the film thrive ahead of whatever the initial gross is.