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Box Office: Why ‘In The Heights’ Is Under Pressure To Be Next Summer’s Least Surprising Surprise Hit

With competition from streamers, the pressure for movies like 'In the Heights' to succeed is not on the respective underrepresented demographics but on the studios to justify a theatrical release.
ANTHONY RAMOS as Usnavi and MELISSA BARRERA as Vanessa in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “IN THE HEIGHTS,”

ANTHONY RAMOS as Usnavi and MELISSA BARRERA as Vanessa in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “IN THE HEIGHTS,”

Macall Polay, courtesy of Warner Bros.

It’s now up to the studios to prove that outside-the-box event movies like Crazy Rich Asians and In the Heights still belong in wide theatrical release as opposed to the less results-oriented world of streaming.

Warner Bros. dropped the first trailer for In the Heights this morning, presumably timed to play with both Warner Bros.’ own Richard Jewell (opening tonight) and Universal’s Cats (opening a week from tonight). The film is one of WB’s big summer offerings next year, alongside Scoob, Wonder Woman 1984, Chris Nolan’s Tenet, Scoob and James Wan’s Malignant. The Jon M. Chu-directed adaptation of Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin-Manual Miranda’s Tony-winning Broadway play, with Hudes writing and Miranda producing, opens on June 26, concurrently with Tom Cruise’s Top Gun: Maverick. It’s as stark an example as you can imagine of “something new and of-the-moment” versus “something that was once popular and is banking on generational nostalgia.”

Considering when In the Heights was initially performed, you can argue that it’s “Morning in America” nostalgia versus “Hope and Change” nostalgia, but I digress. In the Heights, starring (deep breath) Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, Jimmy Smits, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz and Dascha Polanco is selling itself as a demographically-specific event movie, both in terms of the ethnic makeup of its cast and crew and the fact that it’s a splashy live-action musical. The likes of Girls Trip, Crazy Rich Asians and shows the obvious value of something that is both universally appealing and a big deal for certain audiences in a way it might not be for folks who look like me.

The live-action musical has been a vibrant and bankable sub-genre at least since Ewan McGregor sang a cover of “Your Song” to Nicole Kidman in May of 2001. In the Heights is hoping to join the likes of Moulin Rouge, Hairspray, Mamma Mia!, Pitch Perfect 2 and Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again as blockbuster musicals kicking butt in the summer. And it’s hoping to join the likes of (relatively speaking) Straight Outta Compton, Girls Trip, Crazy Rich Asians, Step Up and Wonder Woman as a demographically specific event movie that just crushed it during a crowded summer movie season. And, presuming a budget between Crazy Rich Asians ($30 million) and Mamma Mia 2 ($75 million), this should be an easy win.

COREY HAWKINS as Benny and LESLIE GRACE as Nina in Warner Bros. Pictures’ 'IN THE HEIGHTS'

COREY HAWKINS as Benny and LESLIE GRACE as Nina in Warner Bros. Pictures’ 'IN THE HEIGHTS'

Macall Polay, courtesy of Warner Bros.

First, to state the obvious, this looks like a smashingly entertaining piece of popcorn cinema. Second, to state the obvious, Hispanics are ridiculously underrepresented when it comes to onscreen/offscreen diversity/inclusivity, especially considering the extent to which they frequent the multiplex (more so than any other demographic) compared to the often-targeted young white male moviegoer. So you have a splashy live-action musical based on an acclaimed stage show starring a bunch of performers representing an underserved demographic that happens to go to the movies a lot? Yeah, barring a fluke, In the Heights is next year’s prime contender for the year’s least surprising surprise hit. And it’s in Warner Bros.’ interest to make that happen.

The filmmakers behind Crazy Rich Asians turned down a lucrative Netflix deal because they wanted the prestige and glory of a smash hit theatrical success. The conventional wisdom was flipped on its head. The success of Crazy Rich Asians wasn’t about “Can a movie mostly starring Asians be a box office success?” but rather “Can a mainstream romantic comedy like Crazy Rich Asians be successful enough in theaters to justify the proverbial “next Crazy Rich Asians” going to a studio instead of opting for Netflix? The $237 million success (including $171 million domestic) success of the Constance Wu/Henry Golding flick meant more to Warner Bros. and Hollywood than it did as “proof Asians can make a box office hit.”

ANTHONY RAMOS as Usnavi in Warner Bros. Pictures’ 'IN THE HEIGHTS'

ANTHONY RAMOS as Usnavi in Warner Bros. Pictures’ 'IN THE HEIGHTS'

Warner Bros.

As such, if by some horrible fluke In the Heights bombs next summer, it’ll hurt most in terms of the next movie of its kind going the conventional movie studio/first-run theatrical release route. The filmmakers will be fine and the next of its kind will just end up on a streaming service, be it Netflix, HBO Max, Amazon or Hulu. So, yes, as grouchy as I get when audiences don’t show up for The Kitchen or Miss Bala, it does create a skewed incentive for when a major studio releases a movie like In the Heights. Thanks to competition from streamers, the equation has changed in terms of what a movie like Crazy Rich Asians represents.  

The pressure is not on the movie to “prove” something about its demographics but rather on the studio to “prove” that it can still turn a movie like this into a bigger hit/bigger zeitgeist moment than it would have been as a streaming-exclusive title. That’s just one reason why I’d be shocked, even in this streaming/VOD era, where far fewer people go to the movies just to go to the movies, if In the Heights didn’t cause lots of moviegoers to step up 2 the streets and into the theater. Jokes aside, if it’s half as good as Step Up 3-D, we’re all in for a treat. Warner Bros. will open this one on June 26. As always, we’ll see.

The official studio spiel:

IN THE HEIGHTS The creator of “Hamilton” and the director of “Crazy Rich Asians” invite you to the event of the summer, where the streets are made of music and little dreams become big... “In the Heights.” Lights up on Washington Heights...The scent of a cafecito caliente hangs in the air just outside of the 181st Street subway stop, where a kaleidoscope of dreams rallies this vibrant and tight-knit community. At the intersection of it all is the likeable, magnetic bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), who saves every penny from his daily grind as he hopes, imagines and sings about a better life.

“In the Heights” fuses Lin-Manuel Miranda’s kinetic music and lyrics with director Jon M. Chu’s lively and authentic eye for storytelling to capture a world very much of its place, but universal in its experience. “In the Heights” stars Anthony Ramos (“A Star is Born,” Broadway’s “Hamilton”), Corey Hawkins (“Straight Outta Compton,” “BlacKkKlansman”), singer/songwriter Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera (TV’s “Vida”), Olga Merediz (Broadway’s “In the Heights”), Daphne Rubin-Vega (Broadway’s “Rent”), Gregory Diaz IV (Broadway’s “Matilda the Musical”), Stephanie Beatriz (TV’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”), Dascha Polanco (TV’s “Orange is the New Black”) and Jimmy Smits (the “Star Wars” films).

Chu is directing the film from a screenplay by Quiara Alegría Hudes; it is based on the musical stage play, with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, book by Quiara Alegría Hudes and concept by Miranda. “In the Heights” is produced by Miranda and Hudes, together with Scott Sanders, Anthony Bregman and Mara Jacobs. David Nicksay and Kevin McCormick served as executive producers. Behind the camera, Chu is reuniting with his “Crazy Rich Asians” production designer, Nelson Coates, and editor, Myron Kerstein. He is also collaborating with director of photography Alice Brooks (TV’s “The Walking Dead”) and costume designer Mitchell Travers (“Eighth Grade”). The choreography is by Christopher Scott, who previously teamed with Chu on the award-winning “The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers.”

“In the Heights” was filmed in New York, primarily on location in the dynamic community of Washington Heights. Slated for release on June 26, 2020, it will be distributed worldwide by Warner Bros. Pictures.

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