West Side Story disappoints at the box office

David Alvarez (Bernardo) in West Side Story.
(Niko Tavernise/20th Century Fox)

I assume Steven Spielberg’s $100 million remake of West Side Story isn’t being advertised quite as heavily in your neighborhood, but on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where I live, you can scarcely take a breath without being hit with advertising for the movie. 20th Century Studios/Disney treated this as an event movie, it had the weekend all to itself, it had considerable critical acclaim/hype and some of the target demographic (the theater community, extending out to everyone who ever performed in the show in high school) was intensely interested.

Unfortunately, the movie also suffers from having no stars (sorry, Ansel Elgort, but you make Timothée Chalamet look like Marlon Brando) and it’s based on a property that may be beloved by people over 50 but is, I suspect, totally unknown to those under 40.  People over 50 don’t go to the movies. The single comment I most often hear from people when I tell them I’m a film critic is, “Oh, I haven’t been to the movies in years.” TV is where it’s at these days. West Side Story is on track to gross $10.2 million in North America on its opening weekend — less than the $11.5 million earned by In the Heights in June, even though In the Heights is a little-known property and it debuted on HBO Max the same day. Certainly, the public sense that the pandemic was over in June provided a boost and the reverse is true six months later.

West Side Story is, despite the terrific songs and attempts to update it, still an extremely dated property — corny, maudlin, contrived, phony. I saw it in a huge theater full of enthusiastic fans, and even there reaction was muted. It just isn’t that great. Word of mouth is not going to help this movie earn out.

It’s not really fair to call the movie a flop yet, though; its target audience of women over 25 is, famously, distracted by holiday-season activities, which is why movies like this tend to be released on Christmas Day rather than in early December. People have to see something Christmas Day and Christmas week (if they’re not too scared to go back to the movies), so it should keep drawing interest through the new year. However, it can’t expect much of a boost in January from the Golden Globes, which are not being broadcast by NBC this year due to a scandal, and it also won’t get much of a boost from the Oscar nominations because, as I’ve been writing for several years, the Oscars no longer matter to the average person. The Academy Awards went woke and have, culturally, gone broke. When you’re an awards-granting body and you stop giving out statuettes based solely on merit, people notice. Then they stop paying attention. The Oscars are actually even more corrupted by political correctness than the Golden Globes are by being lavished with goodies.

For all I know, West Side Story could win either of the two top Oscars (I doubt it; Hollywood dislikes Spielberg, which is why he has still won only two Best Director awards after all these years, the same number as Alejandro González Iñárritu), but it’s hard to picture the movie approaching the $100 million domestic that would signal that the project might have a chance to break even.

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