“Binge Times,” a new book on the streaming wars, traces the movie musical’s glamorous theatrical release and its death by streaming.
Amid the frenzy, as well as the coronavirus pandemic, the box office has become something that is far from the well-oiled machine that generated $11.4 billion in domestic grosses in 2019. The 2021 theater list on HBO Max at the same time it’s hitting theaters, and Disney’s “Premier Access” gambit, which charged Disney+ subscribers extra to stream its new releases, were two major initiatives that broke convention in the name of streaming.
In an exclusive excerpt from “Binge Times” below, we get a front row seat to the world premiere of “In the Heights” on June 9 when the musical opened the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. aired on HBO Max within hours of its world premiere and turned out to be a box office disappointment.
This excerpt has been edited for style reasons.
Lin-Manuel Miranda grabbed Robert De Niro’s microphone and bounded across the stage like a labradoodle unleashed. “Well, what’s up, ‘In the Heights’ opening night?” he shouted happily. The crowd at United Palace roared their approval of him. Going to the movies, one of the oldest rituals in American cultural life, had officially returned after the depths and deprivations of the coronavirus pandemic.
The atmosphere in the theater turned festive, even giddy, a mood uncannily matched by the animated film itself. The premiere of “In the Heights” kicked off the 20th annual Tribeca Festival, the first festival in North America to feature in-person screenings since COVID hit in early 2020. “Before COVID,” said the co-founder of Tribeca, De Niro, before the lights went out. below, “just going to the movies was something you took for granted. Now we remember that it is a special event.”
Miranda and her family contributed to the restoration of the United Palace, which was built in 1930 as one of Loew’s five “Wonder Theaters” in New York. It occupies an entire city block in Washington Heights, the neighborhood that was the namesake, subject, and filming location of the film. Miranda still lives there, where she was born and raised. Hundreds of residents lined Upper Broadway on the gala’s sultry late-spring evening, snapping photos with their cell phones and enjoying the spectacle that almost never made it to their own block. In a plaza next to the theater, Warner Bros. had rolled out a yellow carpet and erected a photo-friendly version of the kind of shops that were actually just a few hundred feet beyond the security gates. The simulation was completed with a substitute warehouse.
A dozen applause greeted the film’s spectacular dance sequences. Due to COVID safety protocols, only a few hundred fully vaccinated guests were able to enter the 3,300-seat theater. They took up alternating rows, but their reaction resonated beyond attendance figures. The broadcast was never mentioned in any of the official comments, but the film’s poster art included the standard pitch, “See it in theaters/Also on HBO Max,” in fine print. Not even two hours after its world premiere, the film would be available for streaming, a clear departure from long-time industry norms. Even though the film’s director, Jon M. Chu, was among dozens of other stakeholders who had been compensated by WarnerMedia after it decided to implement The Popcorn Project, he still viewed “In the Heights” as an experience. big screen. “WARNING!! Box office matters,” Chu tweeted on opening day. “Show up. Buy a ticket for a friend, a school, co-workers, total strangers, whoever needs to see it. Every ticket is a vote for more movies that showcase the incredible Latino/Latino talent and stories that still exist. Make it a fact.”
The post-screening party, held at an open-air riverside venue called the Hudson, felt like the old days. Hugs, kisses, and handshakes were freely exchanged. Crowds formed packed lines for rum cocktails and plates of Cuban food. Spontaneous salsa dances broke out, including an upbeat one with Miranda and Olga Merediz, who originated the role of Abuela Claudia on stage and played her in the film. Jason Kilar, who had announced that he planned to continue in the role of CEO at WarnerMedia until the closing of the merger with Discovery, didn’t dance, but he came pretty close. With a bright smile, he said that the premiere was the fourth time he had seen the film. Showing the fanatic fervor he often brought to the job, as well as to social media, he explained the behind-the-scenes technology used to create a dizzying dance sequence that featured the side of a building tilting to create a ballroom. A soulful song sung by Merediz, whose character is caught between life and death but embraces “patience and faith” (patience and faith), “never hit me as hard as it did tonight,” Kilar said.
The executive gave a bear hug to Chu, whose “Crazy Rich Asians” had been a watershed moment for Warner Bros. before Kilar’s time, in 2018. A media executive who attended the party and spoke with Chu He said that he had asked him that very night. what he thought about the movie being on HBO Max. “No comment,” replied the director. While the mood at the party was effervescent, several attendees expressed doubts about the commercial prospects for “In the Heights.” It featured Jimmy Smits, Miranda, Marc Anthony and other recognizable names in its cast, but none were proven box office draws. All-Latino casts were still a rare thing in the movie business. Although a 2019 study showed that 24 percent of monthly moviegoers are Latino, only 4 percent of movies released in recent years had a single Latino character in the lead. “People will probably go looking for it in New York and Los Angeles, but I wonder about the rest of the country,” said an exhibit executive. Another exec who doesn’t work at Warner Bros. agreed: “It plays through the roof, but I wonder if people will show up. It’s not Hamilton.”
As the party continued past midnight, shortly after the closing credits rolled on the United Palace big screen, “In the Heights” began airing on HBO Max. It wasn’t the first film to broadcast “day and date” with its theatrical release, but the timing of the release made digital availability seem especially abrupt.
When the film made its way to streaming, its box office fell short of showings. It finished with $11.5 million in its opening weekend, despite rave reviews and general momentum at the box office in the preceding weeks. It wasn’t that Covid-anxious audiences were avoiding theaters, though perhaps 18-24-year-olds, who tend to be the most avid moviegoers, had returned to multiplexes first. The week’s highest-grossing movie, “A Quiet Place Part II,” grossed $11.7 million to propel the film past the $100 million mark, making it the first box office hit since the pandemic. Disney’s “Cruella” grossed $6.7 million in domestic box office sales, totaling $56 million, not including proceeds from those who opted to watch Cruella de Vil’s origin story at home with a $30 Premier Access premium for Disney+ subscribers. .
How much of the box office receipts had HBO Max spent, and was it worth the tradeoff? It would be hard to tell, even once the numbers have been tallied up. Other day-and-date Warner Bros. releases, such as “Godzilla vs. Kong” and “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It,” did well in theaters, even as HBO Max subscriber numbers increased as well. . Warner Bros. had an industry-leading 35 percent market share prior to the release of “In the Heights.” But were those movies resonating like they normally would? Patty Jenkins, director of “Wonder Woman” and its sequel streaming on HBO Max, offered a scathing assessment of the 2021 market in an appearance at the CinemaCon industry conference. “All the movies that are putting out the streaming services, I’m sorry, they look like fake movies to me,” he said, saying the decision to go ahead with the day and date on “Wonder Woman 1984” had been a “very, very very difficult”. “I don’t hear about them, I don’t read about them. It is not working as a model to establish legendary greatness.”
Jenkins was not alone. A lingering effect of Project Popcorn was damage to the studio’s reputation, even after financial deals were made with the talent. AT&T and Kilar took most of the blame for the poorly communicated message to the creative community, but the ill will persisted. In a rare official comment to the Los Angeles Times, CAA co-chairman Bryan Lourd said of Warner Bros. studio head Toby Emmerich: “There’s the Toby I know, who is very friendly to artists and built a relationship-based career. And then there’s the Toby who had to work for the people who made him deliver the exact opposite of artist-friendly news.” Asked if he believed the studio had repaired the damage to his talent relationships, Lourd bluntly replied, “No, I don’t.”
Among the guests at the premiere of “In the Heights” was a longtime Discovery executive. After 22 years at the company, having seen it grow from a strict purveyor of nature documentaries to a global powerhouse known more for reality series like “Flip or Flop” and “90 Day Fiancée,” he expressed optimism about the fusion bordering on the Pollyannaish. “Intellectual property is in incredible shape: Warner Bros. is just killing it, HBO is doing it,” he said. “We just have to fix the corporate culture. People need to know that they can work together. It’s too early for that, but I think it’ll be great once we get everyone together.”
At the valet, about to get into a black Escalade, he spotted a WarnerMedia executive and offered an even fuller version of the same pep talk. “It’s going to be amazing,” he said. “We’re not going to be another version of the guys from Dallas. It’s going to be great.” It was a full-throated repudiation of AT&T’s “Bell Heads,” who had thought they understood the film and television business better than veterans of the trade.
From the book, “Binge Times: Inside Hollywood’s Furious Billion-Dollar Battle to Take Down Netflix.” Copyright ©2022 by Dade Hayes and Dawn Chmielewski. Reprinted with permission from William Morrow, an editorial of HarperCollins Publishers.
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