Box Office: ‘In The Heights’ Disappoints With $5M Friday
We tricked ourselves into convincing everyone that In the Heights was the next Mamma Mia, but really it may end up being the next Rent.
Well, this is the first real heartbreaker of the summer. Jon M. Chu’s acclaimed and buzzy In the Heights topped the box office last night with a frankly mediocre $5 million Friday. That includes previews on Thursday, and it points toward an over/under $15 million weekend launch. Warner Bros. has been playing down expectations, partially because they didn’t want to be that defensive for a debut in line with Rent ($17.1 million over a Wed-Sun Thanksgiving launch in 2005) while the media (mea culpa, at least prior to Covid) was arguing for a $25-$35 million launch on par with Crazy Rich Asians. Warner sold the hell out of this one, and I don’t look forward to folks blaming “the marketing,” which is the lazy excuse anytime a movie we think folks should have seen plays to empty auditoriums.
Barring incredible legs (which is still possible), the $55 million In the Heights could be another example of audiences acting in opposition to online media narratives. We say we want Widows, but audiences show up for Venom, Halloween and The Grinch. Film Twitter championed Birds of Prey, but audiences showed up for Joker. Film Twitter decried Peter Farrelly’s Green Book and Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody, while both films from both “problematic” directors won multiple Oscars and grossed $322 million (the biggest-grossing Best Picture winner in a decade) and $905 million (the biggest-grossing straight drama ever) respectively. Meanwhile, during that 2019 Oscar season, Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston’s “problematic” The Upside earned $108 million domestic from a $20 million debut. Conversely, alt-right trolls didn’t stop Captain Marvel from topping $1.128 billion, a lesson that came too late for Disney’s Star Wars trilogy.
Diversity can be a big added-value element in a movie that audiences already want to see, or at least it’s very much not a deterrent when we’re talking about a splashy rom-com (Crazy Rich Asians), a buzzy horror flick (Get Out), an escapist fantasy ensemble road trip comedy (Girls Trip) or an MCU superhero flick (Black Panther). But it’s not much of a driver if audiences aren’t already interested in the movie in question. Film Twitter convinced themselves that In the Heights was The Force Awakens, but general audiences viewed it as Terminator: Dark Fate. In the Heights sold itself as a celebration of Hispanic-American culture but had little else to sell (no stars, no high concept, no IP, etc.) to those who those who didn’t view such a noble sentiment as automatically “worth seeing in theaters.”
I haven’t mentioned the HBO Max factor yet. Godzilla Vs. Kong opened with $50 million over a Wed-Mon Easter debut despite being on HBO Max. The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It opened with $24 million last weekend (on par with Annabelle Comes Home and Curse of La Llorona) despite being on HBO Max. Even friggin Tom & Jerry opened with $14.1 million despite being on HBO Max. While the same-day streaming availability bit into the opening day/opening weekend numbers, that In the Heights earned $5 million yesterday seems to imply that the film wasn’t pacing for a $10-$15 million opening day even in non-Covid/non-HBO Max times. Might the movie have opened higher had it opened last summer in a non-Covid timeline? Almost certainly so, but clearly we played ourselves in terms of “how big.”
There were hints. Itdidn’t make the top ten in Fandango’s “most anticipated of summer” poll. Warner Bros. knew the online excitement for the splashy musical melodrama wasn’t being matched by general audiences, hence the deluge of free public screenings over the last month. We in the film nerd bubble knew about the project and were rooting for its success, but to general audiences, it was a musical based on a show they’d never heard of, starring actors they’d mostly never heard of, and with a full-throated marketing campaign hamstrung by the fact that the show isn’t remotely plot-driven. The sheer emphasis (both in the press coverage and in the critical consensus) on demographic representation and cultural importance threatened to make the movie feel like homework. More importantly, online interest didn’t translate to general audience interest.
This wasn’t a well-liked television star (Constance Wu) starring in a conventional rom-com about a successful career woman discovering a big secret (that her boyfriend is incredibly wealthy) and dealing with a life-changing conflict (explicit disapproval from her potential mother-in-law). This wasn’t a quartet of somewhat well-known (led by Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett Smith) Black women going on an escapist vacation. This wasn’t a trio of comic actors (led by Mila Kunis and Kristen Bell) living out a relatable fantasy of suburban mothers putting their own needs before their kids. Even with the Lin-Manuel Miranda factor, In the Heights may not be the best Crazy Rich Asians, Girls Trip or Bad Moms. Itmay end up being another case, like Kick-Ass, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World and Dredd, where online anticipation overrepresents general audience interest.
Still, it’s not like there are a ton of splashy, culturally-specific modern-day musical melodramas playing in multiplexes this summer. With nothing “huge” (all due respect to The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard) opening between now and June 25, Warner Bros. may try to sell the notion of a 14-day “debut” between In the Heights and F9. With rave reviews, an A from Cinemascore and a media clearly rooting for its success, I wouldn’t be surprised to see initial legs on par with Puss in Boots (which “disappointed” with a $34 million debut in 2011 and then earned $33 million in weekend two). But if the film plays closer to Rent than The Greatest Showman, well, sometimes we online media types convince ourselves that a movie is bigger than it is. Sometimes audiences don’t care about mother***ing snakes on a mother***ing plane.