The enthusiasm for “In the Heights” was understandable.
Both as a symbol for creativity and for opportunities in film, but also as a broader societal statement about inclusion, there were always going to be high hopes for the fate of a film that celebrates a segment of the Latino community. Whether this ultimately helped the film, or even might have caused something of a backlash — especially considering that, after Warner Bros. marketed the film based on its inclusivity, Lin-Manuel Miranda had to apologize for its lack of Afro-Latino representation — is unclear.
And several factors separate whatever positive feeling one has about the film from how it has actually performed.
The reality is that the film’s $11.5 million opening weekend came in under expectations, even if they had been exaggerated by Film Twitter hype and very positive reviews. A non-franchise, non-sequel summer film whose intended audience includes older viewers (in movie terms, over 35), “In the Heights” is an anomaly, the results for which now somewhat unfairly represent similar releases.
Some fans now predict that a rebound, or at least a smaller than normal drop, could happen as word of mouth spreads to the wider public. One key point has been comparing it to a recent musical smash which opened to even less, and then finished with a $170 million domestic gross. That was “The Greatest Showman,” the Hugh Jackman-starring sleeper that opened in December 2017.
Its trajectory has little to do with “Heights.” But before explaining why, some pertinent facts about how “Heights” as done so far.
Box office analysts react to grosses similar to the way Steve Kornacki and John King and others respond to election returns. Look for trends, specific details, and project ultimate outcomes cautiously while keeping in mind mostly invariable patterns.
Apart from the weekend total, here is what we also know at this point, including reports learned from sources:
— Saturday’s gross was down 26 percent from the combined Thursday preview/Friday number. Particularly for an older audience appeal film, that is unusually high.
— For Sunday, the film fell slightly behind “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It,” though it topped it for the weekend.
— It fell an estimated 61 percent on Monday from Sunday. By comparison, “A Quiet Place 2” fell only 51 percent, with a gross of $1.7 million. At $1.1 million, “Heights” was more behind “Place” for the day than it lagged for the whole weekend.
— Tuesday rose 5 percent, the average among all films; “Place” fell 5 percent.
— Though there are no verified numbers for parallel HBO Max subscriber viewings, one source (Samba TV, which tracks streaming results) says that an estimated 693,000 U.S. households viewed at least some of the film this weekend. The impact on the gross is unclear. But of note is that this was half as many views as “Conjuring” got the previous weekend. That’s the same proportion as their gross. The demographics for the streamer suggest it should have had a better relative showing.
In most cases, even if the differences are small, positive movement for a film in its early days is usually seen right away. Though the film is still much discussed, the discourse about it is now focusing more on its box office and controversy over colorism in its casting. There are no signs this is hurting the grosses. But it’s no help either.
Citing “The Greatest Showman” as a precedent is misusing statistics without context. Yes, its opening weekend was $8.8 million, with a staggering 19 times multiple when all was said and done — virtually unheard of for an initial wide release film.
But there are some huge caveats here. First, “Showman” opened on a Wednesday, with a five day gross of $13.4 million. Most of the additional $4.9 million likely would have ended up condensed into a normal three day weekend.
But this wasn’t remotely a normal weekend. It was the one before Christmas, dead time for all but the most pre-sold event films. Both “Star Wars” and “Jumanji” sequels opened that Friday.
“Showman” went early for one main reason. It had little advance hype. But the studio figured they had a tough-sell film that would benefit from getting some early viewing to spread word of mouth.
And those initial days led into Christmas and New Year’s, the most intense movie going weeks of the year, more so for families and older viewers, who were its target audiences.
Its explosion into a massive hit was helped by having a big star like Jackman. This was a reach for him, but the moment word went out about how much people loved it, he was a big asset. “Heights” should elevate Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, and others, but they are not there yet, and the film lacks Jackman’s draw.
What about that A Cinemascore for “Heights”? That’s more than ever an unreliable rating. Always an easy scale, A+ through A- indicates audience satisfaction. But among 13 recent studio releases, eight have received either A or A-. Others to get A include “Cruella” and “Spirit Untamed,” the latter a non-starter at theaters (and it dropped 58 percent its second weekend).
Wide release moviegoing these days is based on immediate impact and strong starts. The reality is that a drop of 40 percent next weekend would be a positive sign. Generally, and during the recent reopening little has changed, any fall below 50 percent is normally not bad.
But following usual patterns, a strong result like 40 percent would likely leave the film with an ultimate domestic total under $40 million. It could still hit a 3X multiple, normally positive. But for a film with a reported $55 million budget, reports of normal wide release marketing costs (usually $30 million or more), and lower film rental deals with theaters because of HBO Max, that might leave the studio with $18 million or less in film rental.
International is mostly still to come (it took in $200,000 over the weekend in eight territories), Warners has had success with PVOD later post-Max, and we have no idea how many new subscribers signed up for the platform. But the economics for “Heights” right now are not positive.
That so many have had a positive reaction to it and its participants are a net plus. Awareness of the need for elevated diversity for Latinos will reap dividends. The film lacked some essential elements other similar films had. A musical with awareness below other Broadway shows, a lack of star names, an emphasis on ethnic centering that might not have translated broadly toward inclusion of other Latinos, and even a less enthusiastic reaction to the film than initially was anticipated all could factor in.
This weekend will tell us more. But midweek, signs don’t suggest any turnaround.