In the Heights launched in theaters and HBO Max on June 10, to fanfare from musical devotees and critics alike. As the post-pandemic box office continues to roar to life, In The Heights looked like the first breakout hit of the summer. One of the best-reviewed movies of 2021 — indeed one of the best-reviewed musical movies of all time — In the Heights had a lot going for it. However, as In The Heights limps to an anemic $13m opening weekend box office, one must ask: what went wrong?
Some will blame the hybrid day-and-date theater/streaming strategy for its relatively week debut, arguing that viewers decided to watch the movie at home. But that ignores three other films (Godzilla vs. Kong, Mortal Kombat, and Cruella) launched with similar strategies since April, all making more than $20m in their opening weekends. Each of those movies received lukewarm reviews, but they were part of well-known film franchises with characters immediately familiar. Launching a brand new (to the average film-going audience) IP, Warner Brothers seriously dropped the ball in marketing In the Heights.
The Broadway version of In the Heights did win the Tony Award for Best Musical, but the gulf between Broadway-goers and mainstream audiences is quite wide. When the first trailer for In the Heights dropped in December, it tried to create familiarity by namedropping Lin-Manuel Miranda (Creator of Hamilton!) and Jon Chu (director of Crazy Rich Asians!). But outside those two anchors, the trailer failed to instill any excitement in this movie.
What’s it about? A neighborhood, a block, that’s failing? People outside New York probably don’t even know what Washington Heights is, or any NYC neighborhoods outside of “The Village” or “The Upper East Side” for that matter. Other than smattering references to class struggles and immigrant status — the dreamers are in jeopardy or something — very little else of the plot was given. Unlike trailers for musicals like Rent or Hairspray, there weren’t even any show-stopping tunes featured in the trailer.
The film features a cast of relative unknowns. Anthony Ramos is best known as a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him sidekick in A Star is Born (2018), Corey Hawkins was on The Walking Dead for a bit and a failed 24 spin-off, and Jimmy Smits isn’t exactly a box office draw.
Subsequent trailers have relied on flashy colors, quick dance number cuts, and overwhelming critical response to try and establish In the Heights as a summer event. But Warner Brothers failed to build any momentum around the film.
To get a sense of audience perception, I conducted a totally scientific experiment with a non-biased sample size this weekend, by asking five people I know what they knew about In the Heights. They’re all movie watchers to various degrees, and two are relatively regular cinema-goers (er, when the cinema is open). Three had never heard of In the Heights, one knew it was based on a hit musical, and another replied “the dancing movie?”
There’s every chance that in a weird, slow return to normality, that In the Heights may leg out to a decent box office, or that tens of millions will watch the film on HBO Max. But what we know is it has debuted to a relatively weak box office — the ninth-best weekend by a film since April 1 of this year. It’s too early to call it a box office bomb — but Warner Brothers is undoubtedly wondering where to point the finger for this early misfire.
Start with the marketing department.