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As ‘West Side Story’ Struggles at the Box Office, Headlines Could Become Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Disney opened Steven Spielberg's musical remake in hopes it would gain momentum before Christmas, but that strategy could backfire.

"West Side Story"

“West Side Story”

20th Century Studios

In legal circles, there’s a saying that big cases make for bad law, meaning that misinterpretations of high-profile situations can lead to the wrong conclusions. That may apply to early reactions to the opening grosses of Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story.”

Its $10.5 million initial gross fell into the low-end range of expectations — however modest — and doomy extrapolations followed. Even TMZ, not known for its Saturday-morning box office coverage, got on board: “Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’ Flops,” it headlined, adding “Fans Blame Ansel Elgort’s Casting.”

Maybe there’s some small solace in a site that caters to a younger audience still caring about theatrical box office, but this is a time when nuance is essential. It could be the difference between a film being killed off and one that still has a chance to emerge from its box-office dead zone to take advantage of its “A” Cinemascore and draw an audience.

Six months ago, “In the Heights,” another New York-set musical adaptation, was considered a disappointment when it opened to $11.5 million. On this weekend in 2015, Ron Howard’s “In the Heart of the Sea” took in $11 million and lost 80 percent of its theaters two weeks later. However, context is critical.

“In the Heights” opened in the prime of summer with HBO Max. “West Side Story” opened when adults don’t go to theaters (that starts December 25). “Heart” had a lesser response (B+ Cinemascore), no Covid to contend with, no awards buzz, and no clear audience appeal. “West Side Story” fell 11 percent on Saturday; “Heights” dropped 27 percent.

The early December release was meant to build word of mouth, with strong Oscar chances to sustain interest. Now, the media crepe hanging could now turn their headlines into a fait accompli. And with “Spider-Man: No Way Home” (Sony) opening next weekend, new questions arise. An opening of $150 million is not out of the question — thereby shifting the narrative around the death of theaters — but the contrast of a film that will open 10 times or more better might suggest game over any films that don’t fit the same profile.

This weekend in 2019, “Jumanji: The Next Level” opened to $59 million. This weekend’s total is $45 million. That’s only 38 percent of two years ago, and reduces our four-week rolling comparison to 2019 also down to 48 percent. That’s the lowest level since August.

Encanto Disney

Encanto

Disney

Holdovers were encouraging. “Encanto” came in No. 2, only about a million under “WSS” with $9.4 million. “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” fell 31 percent, “Eternals” off 24 percent. “The House of Gucci”at No. 4 fell 42 percent, suggesting that adult appeal impacted results — much like “WSS.”

Two items of note just below the top 10. “King Richard” (Warner Bros., also on HBO Max), despite its acclaim and awards chances, fell to No. 12 in its fourth weekend with $530,000 and under $15 million total. “National Champions” (STX), focusing on student athlete rights, managed only $300,000 in 1,197 theaters.

Unreported (per usual for Netflix, increasingly so for Amazon), two soon-to-be-streamed awards hopefuls played multi-hundred theater dates. Adam McKay’s “Don’t Look Up” (Netflix) and Aaron Sorkin’s “Being the Ricardos” (Amazon) both had per theater averages of little more than $1,000 despite playing in a range of top theaters (including AMC for Amazon and Cinemark for Netflix locations).

Top limited opener this weekend was Sean Baker’s “Red Rocket.” A24 reports $96,000 in six locations. That’s a result in line with tricky times, a PTA about half of the director’s “The Florida Project” in 2018, and below the initial result for “C’mon, C’mon” last month (both titles also A24).

Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza” continues its strong platform run, down only 27 percent with a gross of $176,000. Ironically, that number is about the same as “C’mon” in its fourth weekend, with the latter playing in 569 theaters.

The Top 10

1. West Side Story (Disney) NEW – Cinemascore: A; Metacritic:; Est. budget: $100 million

$10,500,000 in 2,820 theaters; PTA (per theater average): $3,723; Cumulative: $10,500,000

2. Encanto (Disney) Week 3; Last week #1

$9,425,000 (-28%) in 3,750 (-230) theaters; PTA: $2,513; Cumulative: $71,435,000

3. Ghostbusters: Afterlife (Sony) Week 4; Last week #2

$7,100,000 (-31%) in 3,815 (-244) theaters; PTA: $1,861; Cumulative: $112,004,000

4. House of Gucci (United Artists) Week 3; Last week #3

$4,061,000 (-42%) in 3,407 (-70) theaters; PTA: $1,192; Cumulative: $41,032,000

5. Eternals (Disney) Week 6; Last week #5

$3,100,000 (-24%) in 3,030 (-200) theaters; PTA: $1,023; Cumulative: $161,217,000

8. Christmas With the Chosen: The Messengers (Fathom) Week 2; Last week #4

$1,290,000 (-70) in 1,600 (-100) theaters; PTA: $890; Cumulative: $13,438,000

6. Resident Evil: Raccoon City (Sony) Week 3; Last week #6

$1,650,000 (-39%) in 2,572 (-231) theaters; PTA: $642; Cumulative: $15,852,000

7. Clifford the Big Red Dog (Paramount) Week 5; Last week #7; also on Paramount Plus

$1,325,000 (-30%) in 2,840 (-421) theaters; PTA: $467; Cumulative: $47,709,000

9. Dune (Warner Bros.) Week 8; Last week #8; also on Premium VOD

$857,000 (-54%) in 948 (-269) theaters; PTA: $904; Cumulative: $106,210,000

10. Venom: Let There Be Carnage (Sony) Week 11; Last week #11; also on Premium VOD

$850,000 (-15%) in 1,003 (-231) theaters; PTA: $847; Cumulative: $212,053,000

"Red Rocket"

“Red Rocket” /  A24

A24

Additional specialized/limited/independent releases 

Don’t Look Up (Netflix) NEW – Metacritic: 52

$(est.) 675,000 in (est.) 500 theaters; PTA: $1,350

Being the Ricardos (Amazon) NEW – Metacritic: 59

$(est.) 425,000 in (est.) 400 theaters; PTA: $1,063

Red Rocket (A24) NEW – Metacritic: 76; Festivals include: Cannes, Telluride, New York 2021

$96,593 in 6 theaters; PTA: $16,099

France (Kino Lorber) NEW – Metacritic: 53; Festivals include: Cannes, Toronto, New York 2021

$14,252 in 2 theaters; PTA: $7,126

Benedetta (IFC) Week 2  202

$(est.) 50,000 in 112 (-90) theaters; PTA: $446; Cumulative: $(est.) 269,000

Wolf (Focus) Week 2

$15,000 in 206 (-102) theaters; PTA: $73; Cumulative: $137,570

Flee (Neon) Week 2

$6,275 in 4 (no change) theaters; PTA: $1,569; Cumulative: $38,075

Licorice Pizza (United Artists) Week 3

$176,350 in 4 (no change) theaters; Cumulative: $1,105,000

Drive My Car (Janus) Week 3

$60,378 in 24 (+18) theaters;  Cumulative: $136,199

C’mon C’mon (A24) Week 4   565

$177,322 in 569 (+4) theaters; Cumulative: $

Belfast (Focus) Week 5; also on Premium VOD

$275,000 in 819 (-431) theaters, Cumulative: $6,489,000

Julia (Sony Pictures Classics) Week 5

$10,512 in 45 (-71) theaters; Cumulative: $343,967

Spencer (Neon) Week 6; also on Premium VOD

$66,538 in 228 (-85) theaters; Cumulative: $7,014,000

The French Dispatch (Searchlight) Week 8

$234,000 in 310 (-115) theaters; Cumulative: $15,552,000

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