One of the most startling developments of this year’s film season was the dismal box office performance for the premiere release of Steven Spielberg’s reimagining of the classic musical “West Side Story.” Although it placed at
One of the most startling developments of this year’s film season was the dismal box office performance for the premiere release of Steven Spielberg’s reimagining of the classic musical “West Side Story.” Although it placed at the top of the box office in the Dec. 10-12 weekend, its opening brought in only $10.5 million, one of the weakest returns earned by a top-grossing release since theaters began reopening earlier this year.
The film, presented by the Walt Disney Co.’s (NYSE:DIS) 20th Century Studios, was budgeted at $100 million, with an untold additional sum invested in an aggressive marketing campaign.
So why did “West Side Story” fail to bring in audiences? Film industry experts queried by Benzinga offer a variety of theories.
Too Well Known? Veteran entertainment journalist Michael Musto observed that “West Side Story” was never going to rival the Marvel Cinema Universe for ticket sales.
“I didn’t expect West Side Story to tear up the box office, mainly because of COVID concerns for the mature audience, who have now been lulled into watching movies at home,” he said, noting the shadow of the 1961 Oscar-winning film version also weighed on the release. “It’s a remake of something everyone of a certain age has seen and mostly loved.”
Susan Granger, who reviews films for her SSG Syndicate, added that older audiences have not only seen the 1961 film but also various theatrical revivals and even school productions of the classic musical.
“It's an old story to which Steven Spielberg gave a new twist,” she said. “He's a brilliant filmmaker, but it is a very familiar story, so there's nothing new about it that would attract someone to go pay the money that you have to pay when you go to a theater.”
The Wrong Spotlights? Also, the marketing campaign for “West Side Story” left some experts puzzled.
“I've seen a couple of different commercials on TV and one of them that reminded me of some of the commercials for ‘Chicago’ where they played down the fact that it was a musical,” recalled Richard Barrios, film historian and author of the book "West Side Story: The Jets, the Sharks, and the Making of a Classic." “And, boy, you have to be really ignorant not know that ‘West Side Story’ is a musical.”
Barrios pointed out that Disney intentionally downplayed the marketing attention on the film’s leading man, Ansel Elgort, due to sexual assault allegations that emerged against him while “West Side Story” was in production. While Elgort denied the allegations and no criminal charges or lawsuits have been brought against him, Barrios noted the studio “may be moving carefully to avoid a greater amount of backlash.”
At the same time, Barrios wondered why more attention wasn’t given to Rachel Zegler, a newcomer who gained critical raves as Maria and was enjoying “a-star-is-born story.”
Indeed, a great deal of the attention for the new “West Side Story” has gone to 90-year-old Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for the 1961 film and has a role in the new film. Granger wondered if that strategy made sense.
“It's great that 90-year-old Rita Moreno is singing ‘Somewhere,’ but I don't think that's going to make somebody run to a theater,” she said.
There was also the concern the marketing placed too much of an emphasis on the sociopolitical elements of the film's story.
“Even though racism is a constant in our society, I don’t think the plot of a white guy and a Hispanic girl falling for each other is an edge-of-your-seater today,” said Musto.
Jeff Peters, publisher and editor of the popular culture site News and Times, also wondered if the marketing emphasis on the film’s use of Spanish-language dialogue without English subtitles was seen by some potential moviegoers as too woke for comfort.
“They could have emphasized it as a classic or a love story or as an examination of gang violence and made a lot of money,” he said.
The Home Challenge: And then, there is the 800-pound gorilla in the living room: the streaming services. Granger warned that the increasing costs of moviegoing, particularly for families with children, would make the big screen presentation less attractive.
“It's going to be on one of the streaming channels at some point, so you can see it at home for much less money,” she said.
“There are now more streaming options and availability that allows you to see the movie at home,” said Jerry Dean Roberts, a critic with ArmchairCinema.com. “Some movies, like ‘Being the Ricardos,’ offer two release dates: one for theater and one for streaming.”
Perhaps adding insult to injury, one week ahead of Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story,” was the fourth screen adaptation of the Broadway musical “Annie” via a live Dec. 2 telecast on Comcast Corporation’s (NASDAQ:CMCSA) NBC, where it averaged 5.2 million viewers and was the highest rated non-NFL program on the broadcast television lineup that evening.
While new television versions of classic Broadway and Hollywood musicals have become an occasional diversion in recent years, the film experts were not eager to see the big screen fare become exiled on the small screen.
“I hope filmmakers aren’t scared off into only doing TV versions,” said Musto. “After all, ‘The Wiz,’ ‘Annie’ and others had movies, too.”
“I do not think that TV musicals can hit the demographics they need, as even the Tony Awards seems to get fewer and fewer eyes each year,” added Peters.
Still, the next big movie musical blockbuster might be out there on the far horizon: a film version of “Wicked” starring Ariana Grande and Cynthia Erivo is on schedule for a 2023 release. But Meyers wondered if it could be too little and too late.
“We haven't had a succession of hit musicals in the 21st century,” Meyers said. “It seems like a genre that's exhausted.”
But Felix Vasquez Jr., publisher and editor of Cinema Crazed, wasn't ready to write off the genre.
"There's an appetite for musicals," he said. "But 'West Side Story,' as grandiose and respected as it is, doesn't really appeal to Gen Z as much as, say, 'La La Land' or 'Rent.' Plus, with all due respect to Steven Spielberg, Internet audiences feel that 'West Side Story' smells more like Oscar bait and less like a theatrical experience introducing a new generation to a wonderful musical."
Photo: "West Side Story," courtesy of Disney.