BOX OFFICE: “West Side Story” goes South, “National Champions” bomb, “Riccardos” underwhelm

It’s a 63 year-old stage musical widely regarded as a classic, and 60 year-old movie beloved by generations, also considered a classic and on TV almost constantly.

So who thought giving Steven Spielberg a lot of money and a coveted December/holidays release spot was a sure thing? Aside from Spielberg?

His no-big-stars-in-it “West Side Story” opened to some ecstatic reviews, but mostly respectful ones, and managed just over $10.5 million on its opening weekend. It only earned $4 million and change overseas.

There’s a lot of kvetching over exactly why this didn’t blow up, or why the Sondheim/Bernstein classic didn’t at least out perform the lesser efforts of Lin-Manuel Miranda and others, the recent run of musicals that either featured the “Hamilton” creator in the cast (“Mary Poppins”), behind the camera (“Tick…tick…BOOM!”) or in charge of the whole shebang (“In the Heights”).

Yes, it’s Latin-flavored in a big way, and that audience didn’t show for “In the Heights.” There’s a big difference between the Puerto Rican, Mexican, Cuban, Dominican and Panamanian audiences, Hollywood is occasionally reminded.

Unless you’re referring to “Fast and Furious” movies, those cultures don’t collide at the cinema watching musicals.

“No stars” seems to be the biggest hangup. I was chatting with a fellow critic over the box office bomb this was shaping up to be (an $800k Thursday night opening told the story), and wondering if this would have played even as a Disney/ABC “blockbuster TV event.”

Spielberg went for reality, when musicals should never take that approach too far (“La La Land” got away with it, somewhat). He chose a “Hamilton” star to play the breakout character Anita, and got Ansel Elgort and a total unknown to play Tony and Maria.

The result is a movie that played well…in New York.

Why would 20th Century (pre-Disney) studios give Spielberg the money to make this? Well, there’s a reason 20th Century Fox was a perpetual also-ran, outside of the occasional Big Deal (“Star Wars,””Last of the Mohicans,” etc). Their big gambles were traditionally long shots that landed as wrong shots.

Why would Spielberg think this was a good idea? “Ego,” my critic pal noted. Seems about right. 

All Spielberg accomplished here was making another good-not-great film on a resume wholly filled with big ticket studio projects. He’s spent his entire career trying to be “the new Orson Welles,” a boy wonder who exploded in the scene (lying about his age to appear younger than Welles), and made plenty of blockbusters and a handful of classics working in the studio system, which Welles rarely could.

All I thought when watching the impressive “West Side Story” was how Robert Wise’s 60 year-old film was just as impressive, without drones, lightweight digital cameras and modern tech. Wise (“Sound of Music,””Star Trek: The Motion Picture”) didn’t have Spielberg’s gifts or canon. But Spielberg is a lot closer to “The New Robert Wise” than he is “The Next Orson Welles.” This “West Side Story” had plenty of emotion in select moments, but felt flat with a lot of scenes that didn’t pay off as well as they did way back when.

I still think “West Side Story” will have legs throughout the holidays. But with no Hugh Jackman/Zach Efron and Zendaya, no “radio friendly” new tunes, it’s not going to “Greatest Showman” its way into the black.

STX’s “National Champions” was savvy programming for the end of the “regular” college football season, a decent enough take on the “student athletes deserve to be paid” debate set against the National Championship game in New Orleans. But the movie only really “played” in the football-mad South, where the idea of paying athletes runs up against institutional and cultural racism. So it didn’t do all that well there, either. It didn’t even sell $1 million in tickets, with just over $300k on well over 1000 screens.

The limited Amazon release “Being the Riccardos” did better on 400 screens, over $400K. That isn’t a dazzling per-screen average either. Folks will watch that Oscar bait on Amazon Prime instead.

Yes, there’s still a pandemic going on, but “Spider-Man” is about to remove that excuse from any of the second-guessing surrounding “West Side Story” and the under-performers of fall. COVID or not, that could clear $100 million on its opening weekend alone.

“Encanto” rounded up another $9.4 million (over $70 so far), “Ghostbusters Afterlife” continues to sell even as it falls off to $7 for the weekend (It’s already over $111 million overall), “House of Gucci” did another $4 million and change — it’s over $40, respectable, and it could get some awards season help.

“Eternals,” the worst-reviewed Marvel movie of them all, finishes its run just over $160.

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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6 Responses to BOX OFFICE: “West Side Story” goes South, “National Champions” bomb, “Riccardos” underwhelm

  1. Jack says:

    STX makes a movie about a widely unpopular topic and you blame southern racism for its failure. Football movies count on football fans to watch them and college football fans don’t like this topic and how it could change the landscape of the sport they love. This is a nationwide mindset. This movie didn’t bomb because of southern racism.

    • Roger Moore says:

      Uh, “Jack,” who is mostly impacted? Black student athletes? You white? Happy with the status quo? Yeah. It still made most of its money in the South. Because not everybody misses involuntary servitude and peonage. But the target audience mostly does. As you just said.

  2. Didn’t you mean Zendaya instead of Aliya? Also some movies just don’t need to be remade. This “West Side Story” edition lacked the fire and passion of the first. Plus Natalie Wood was in her prime when the original was made and was a box office draw.

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