Why Hollywood Box Office Matches Hurt “In the Heights”


According to the sources, the opening weekend of “In the Heights” was “Silent” and “modest”, “disappointing,” even “lamentable”. Regardless of the words used to describe it, however, the film’s initial box office was the same: in its first days of nationwide screenings, it generated $ 11.4 million in ticket sales. , below the expected 15 to 20 million dollars.

The numbers, of course, are only part of the story. In a pop culture landscape dominated by sequels, reboots, and cinematic universes – whose power stems in part from infallible recipes – the box office conversation has become ‘do or die’ for the whole more and more. smaller larger studio films that don’t fall under the franchise category, especially those focused on under-represented audiences.

“In the Heights” is simply the most recent and high profile example of Hollywood’s “proof of concept” problem: by unfairly demanding that these films justify not only their own existence but also that of any project similar to Hollywood. follow, the discourse with which industry experts in such images can perpetuate Hollywood’s intractable diversity problems rather than solve them.

What do these numbers mean? Box office expectations for the Warner Bros. musical film were determined in part by tracking, a data-driven process in which a research firm is hired by a studio to measure the power of its film’s marketing efforts. This is done by frequently interviewing a representative sample of moviegoers – hundreds of people of different ages, genders, cultures and places of residence – about their awareness, interests, and choices regarding future releases.

According to a source from a tracking company, a person’s ability to independently remember an upcoming title is the best indicator of its box office potential. (However, there are exceptions: but i didn’t watch it.)

The company takes this data into account – along with the genre of the movie, star power, scores on review aggregation sites, number of screens, release date, social media buzz, simultaneous opening titles and “comps” (big opening weekend of comparable films in the past) – to calculate the expected range for the film’s first box office take. While these totals aren’t perfect calculations, they remain valuable internal tools for studios who, in the crucial weeks leading up to a release, can make the necessary adjustments to their spending and marketing strategies.

Melissa Barrera, center, is part of the cast of the musical “In the Heights”.

(Macall Polay / Warner Bros.)

The problem arises when these private approximations become public, often when a distributor tries to temper expectations to produce an “outperformance” narrative (See also: political debates) or a competitor tries to shake up the deployment of a film. with a negative title.

“The main reason tracking exists is to measure the effectiveness of your advertising campaign,” says Kevin Goetz, founder and CEO of Screen Engine / ASI, a market research and data analytics company. “But unfortunately many people in the industry and the press have made it a board game.”

The opening weekend numbers are more than something to brag about (or downplay) in the media. They are used to setting the price for the most distant side deals, such as the film’s televised broadcast in international territory years after its theatrical release in the United States, an executive said.

The big ones usually indicate how it will perform throughout the rest of its theatrical release. (There are of course exceptions, like “The Greatest Showman,” which hit $ 480 million worldwide after a bad opening.) And if a movie plays particularly well in a certain part of the country, that will boost more. screens and projections in cinemas in this region.

Then there are the qualitative consequences: a positive title on an opening can reverberate throughout the industry, leading untested screenwriters and directors to secure their next projects; stars in small groups, along with their agents and managers, to gain leverage in negotiating deals; projects similar to the newly crowned success to receive the elusive green light. Female action vehicles have gone viral after the strong opening of “Wonder Woman”, for example, and Asian-led narratives have gained momentum after the crowds came out for “Crazy Rich Asians”.

“What is catching the industry’s attention? Says box office analyst Karie Bible of exhibitor relations. “Good reviews? Perhaps. Buzz on the internet? Could help. Money? You bet. Hollywood pays attention to only one color, and that is green.

Director Jon M. Chu, left, screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes and songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Director Jon M. Chu, left, screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes and songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda, at the “In the Heights” New York premiere.

(StarPix / Dave Allocca for Warner Bros. Studios)

Especially when it comes to big-budget studio flicks with non-white actors, however, the weekend box office opening is an unnecessarily blunt instrument. The historical scarcity of these films, thanks to Hollywood’s own well-documented diversity failures, means that they are seen as an audience barometer for similar future projects – a level of pressure rarely if ever applied to an equivalent film. with a director, scriptwriter white and cast. As the Times’ Ryan Faughnder writes, “A by-product of the industry’s shortcomings in inclusion is that any studio film depicting an under-represented group in a culturally specific way becomes a potential turning point.”

This is not to ignore the real flaws of “In the Heights” – namely its failure to represent the Afro-Latinx community of Washington Heights, which has now drawn several rounds of criticism and apology – to suggest that demand for ”holds it back from innovation: after all, a film that doesn’t have the right to box office mistakes in the long run is unlikely to be a terribly interesting film.

And that’s not to mention the cruelty of a system in which, after years of development, weeks of filming and months of marketing, the fate of a film, and those that will follow, only lasts a few days. . As a character of the screenwriter of the golden age asks in the film “The Holiday”, released in 2006: “An image must make a killing the first weekend or it is dead. Is that supposed to be conducive to a great job? “

The fact that this conversation recurs over and over again, at its peak, around the extremely rare big studio movies with non-white tracks, only underscores the problem. At an uncertain time for the industry, in which cinematic habits have been shattered by a pandemic and, long before that, the advent of streaming platforms, the board game’s fundamental lack of imagination should be seen as concerning – because it is. If the industry is to keep its promises to become more inclusive, it will have to learn to define a film’s “success” more than in dollars and cents. And preferably on the merits of this film.


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