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The “West Side Story” flop is not the fault of the pandemic

A scene from West Side Story
20th Century Studios
A scene from “West Side Story”
  • Adario Strange
By Adario Strange

Media & entertainment reporter based in New York

Published Last updated

The release of director Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story was supposed to be one of the biggest movie events of the year. But even positive reviews from critics couldn’t save the film from a major stumble at the box office, with an opening weekend of $10.5 million last week. Early projections estimated that the film might bring in at least $31 million for its opening weekend.

Tepid ticket sales have led to speculation that perhaps the uncharismatic performance of Ansel Elgort in the role of Tony brought the production down. Another theory held that the pandemic-fueled delay, which pushed the original release date from Dec. 2020 to Dec. 2021, complicated the marketing and promotion of the release. 

The recent emergence of the omicron variant of the covid-19 virus could also be to blame. The first case of omicron was discovered in the US on Dec. 1, a little over a week before the release of West Side Story on Dec. 10. Still, the timing of renewed covid-19 concerns hasn’t stopped Spider-Man: No Way Home , which opens today (Dec. 17), from logging record-breaking ticket sales. 

Blockbuster hit movie musicals are mostly outliers

A look back at the recent history of movie musicals indicates that, instead of casting issues or pandemic logistics, the expectations for West Side Story may have been overly optimistic. The 2016 hit La La Land, which took in $447 million worldwide, and 2017’s Beauty and the Beast, which earned $1.2 billion globally, were outliers in the context of most live-action movie musicals released in the last five years. 

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Even before the pandemic, Cats bombed with a $6.6 million opening weekend, and the Golden Globe-winning Rocketman had an only decent opening weekend at $25.7 million. Confounding Hollywood producers even more, in the same year, Aladdin was pummeled by critics but still managed to be the musical success of 2019, raking in $1 billion worldwide. 

In 2021, movie musicals In the Heights and Dear Evan Hansen both had small opening weekends. In contrast, the billion-dollar returns from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, which had budgets of $160 million and $183 million, respectively, likely owed more to the popular animated and theme park underpinnings of both properties. West Side Story’s $100 million budget hovered in the same territory but had an opening weekend below that of In The Heights, which had half the budget of Spielberg’s film. Some estimates project that West Side Story will need to earn at least $300 million globally to make back its investment. 

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