The ‘In The Heights’ Box Office Story is About Context

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In The Heights

Welcome to our weekly box office report, which we do a little differently. Rather than focusing on the money, FSR senior editor Christopher Campbell is more interested in the estimated attendance — or number of tickets sold. Because the value of money changes over the years, but the value of actual moviegoers remains the same. This week, we look at the opening box office attendance numbers for new releases In the Heights, Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway, and more.

There are so many factors to consider when forecasting and analyzing box office. And that’s in a normal year. In 2021, with the pandemic still ongoing, vaccinations still in progress, and moviegoing still not a necessary pastime for many recovering Americans, it is especially difficult to determine why any release is an immediate success or not — and what that even means. For a niche-genre and non-franchise movie such as Jon M. Chu’s In the Heights, which is also available on a subscription video-on-demand service (HBO Max) simultaneous with its theatrical opening, there are so many circumstances worthy of examination when looking at its debut.

In its first three days of release in North America, the New York-set musical has grossed $11.5 million, which is the equivalent of about 1.3 million tickets sold. That’s less than half of what Box Office Pro had forecast last week for the opening, anticipating attendance closer to 2.6 million (within a range of 2.2 million on the low end, and 3.3 million on the high). And one month ago, the same site had that as a low-ball number with 4.9 million people being in the heights, as it were, of its range of potential turnout. I don’t know why the expectation was so great, even with the hugely positive critical reception (97% on Rotten Tomatoes, 85 on Metacritic), but it has deservedly been viewed as an immensely anticipated film for a while, one that would pull crowds back to cinemas in droves.

Well, that may still happen, just slower than envisioned. And that’s not abnormal for a movie of its kind. The Greatest Showman opened to fewer than a million tickets sold (though it’s 1.6 million if we look at its whole Christmas long weekend debut) before becoming one of the top twenty releases of 2017. And the hyped-up Cats opened to a crowd of roughly 723,000 in 2019. Sure, they didn’t have the review power, but unfortunately, great reviews don’t always mean great box office, particularly when it comes to musicals — an awesome musical is still a musical to those who aren’t fans of the genre. Not even the ‘A’ grade that In the Heights received from polled moviegoers on its opening night via Cinemascore nor the Rotten Tomatoes user score of 95% are certain indicators that word of mouth will influence mainstream audiences.

Opening weekend attendance estimate for the last ten wide-release movie musicals adapted from Broadway shows [plus total tickets sold, in brackets]:

In the Heights (2021) – 1.3 million [TBD]
Cats (2019) – 0.7 million [3 million]
Into the Woods (2014) – 3.8 million [15.7 million]
Annie (2014) – 1.9 million [10.5 million]
Jersey Boys (2014) – 1.6 million [5.8 million]
Black Nativity (2013) – 0.5 million [0.9 million]
Les Misérables (2012) – 3.4 million [18.7 million]
Rock of Ages (2012) – 1.8 million [4.8 million]
Nine (2009) – 0.7 million [2.6 million]
Mamma Mia! (2008) – 3.9 million [20.1 million]

Think about it: moviegoers know that with a horror film or action movie, particularly one from a franchise like The Conjuring Universe or Legendary’s Monsterverse, even if they are not exceptional movies, they’ll deliver something of worth in a big-screen viewing versus watching at home on HBO Max. In the Heights might be on people’s radars and look appealing, but it’s safer and more financially sound for them to check it out at home if available rather than taking their chances in theaters. For those endorsing the theatrical experience of In the Heights or in general, the downside here is that once someone sees this movie on HBO Max and loves it, they’re probably more likely to stick with the streaming option over heading to the cinema for repeat viewings — whereas plenty of subscribers who first saw Godzilla vs. Kong on HBO Max still had a desire to see the giant monsters brawling on as big a screen as possible once they felt safe to go back to the theater.

Of the seven Warner Bros. movies released day-and-date in theaters and on HBO Max at the same time, In the Heights is only the second one not to open at number one (chart-toppers include The Little Things, Tom & Jerry, Godzilla vs. Kong, Mortal Kombat, and The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It). The other, Judas and the Black Messiah, is good company to be in — the movie did place first on its opening day, too, just like In the Heights did last Friday. All of these WB releases, including Judas, dropped significantly in their second weekend, so I’m going to let next weekend’s attendance numbers for In the Heights provide a better picture of whether it’ll have longer legs than the rest. Of course, there’s also more competition in theaters now than there was with most of the previous WB releases (and a new action-comedy sequel, Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard, and the latest from Pixar, Luca, come out this week). But I am optimistic that over time it will be fine.

That’s not something I can say about the weekend’s other major studio release, Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway, which also performed lower than expected with an attendance of roughly 1.1 million. That’s with it being a family film sequel with modest to relatively positive reviews — a similar reception to the original, in fact (slightly better than the original if you’re looking at Rotten Tomatoes, slightly worse if you’re looking at Metacritic). Yet the first movie drew a crowd of about 2.7 million in its opening weekend in February of 2018. Unlike a lot of family sequels of recent years, this one doesn’t have a significant home-entertainment presence, and the original Peter Rabbit isn’t easily accessible at the moment via any major streaming service. But even without the alternative of a similar effort at home, family sequels, in general, aren’t a very safe bet anymore. Plus, so far, post-pandemic moviegoing hasn’t proven strong with family attendance yet anyway.

In other new-release news, another sequel fared more intriguingly considering it wasn’t on many people’s radars: the Mike Epps-led horror-comedy The House Next Door: Meet the Blacks 2 debuted on just 420 screens with an estimated attendance of about 116,000. Compare that to the original Meet the Blacks (currently available to stream via Starz), which opened on more than double the screens in April 2016 and sold around 470,000 tickets in its first few days. That’s not bad considering the pandemic, lower screen count, and fact that the follow-up was filmed four years ago. According to its distributor, The House Next Door had the best debut for a feature on fewer than 1,000 screens since March of 2020! That’s good news for indies and other movies not able to pull audiences in with a promise of spectacle they can’t get at home, though this is also just further evidence that horror is going to be killing it this summer.

Another new movie in the top ten this week is Queen Bees, an older-leaning comedy starring Oscar-winner Ellen Burstyn as a reluctant newcomer to a retirement community with a cliquish population reminiscent of high school (it should have been called Golden Mean Girls). Its attendance of under a million on just five hundred screens is decent given all the current circumstances, plus it was made available on VOD the same day. You know movie theaters are headed back in the right direction after the last year when thousands of older folks — they tend to pay a lower ticket price so I won’t focus too much on the estimated attendance number here — are back in the cinemas for this sort of picture. Maybe they’re sneaking into In the Heights afterward to give it a look and will come back to see it later. That’s what my late grandmother who introduced me to theater-hopping would have done.

Here are this week’s top ten movie releases by estimated ticket sales [with totals in brackets]:

1. A Quiet Place Part II – 1.3 million [11.9 million]
2. In the Heights – 1.3 million [1.3 million]
3. The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It – 1.13 million [4.8 million]
4. Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway – 1.103 million [1.1 million]
5. Cruella – 0.7 million [6.1 million]
6. Spirit Untamed – 0.3 million [1.2 million]
7. The House Next Door: Meet the Blacks 2 – 0.11 million [0.1 million]
8. Wrath of Man – 0.07 million [2.8 million]
9. Queen Bees – 0.04 [0.04 million]
10. Spiral: From the Book of Saw – 0.04 million [2.5 million]

All box office gross figures sourced from Box Office Mojo, The Numbers, and Box Office Pro unless otherwise stated.

Christopher Campbell: Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.