‘In The Heights’: It’s Lin-Manuel Miranda’s turn to save the box office

The theater industry has gotten help from a lot of sources so far this year. First, it was a radioactive lizard fighting a giant ape, then it was Emily Blunt quietly outrunning monsters.

Now it’s Lin-Manuel Miranda’s turn to save the box office.

In the Heights,” a film based on Miranda’s Tony Award-winning 2008 musical that immerses viewers in New York’s vibrant Washington Heights neighborhood, hits both theaters and HBO Max on Friday. The Warner Bros. film is expected to make around $15 to $20 million at the North American box office this weekend. (Warner Bros., like CNN, is owned by WarnerMedia.)

The film, which was set to be released last year but was delayed because of the pandemic, has a lot working in its favor that could help it be a surprise hit this summer.

However, Monica Castillo, the arts and culture reporter for Colorado Public Radio and a freelance film critic, believes that there should be nothing surprising about the film being successful.

This is because of the film’s buzz, anticipation, as well as the creative team and marketing might behind it.

Nothing surprising about it

“I don’t think I’ve seen that kind of a marketing effort behind a movie starring mostly Latinx and Black actors outside of the ‘The Fast and the Furious’ franchise,” Castillo told CNN Business. “I think some audiences may be curious to see what the fuss is about after all this time.”

Castillo said she knows people who want to make “In The Heights” the first movie they see in a theater since the pandemic, and others “who just want to watch something that’s fun and entertaining — somewhat like how audiences during the Great Depression sought out escapism,” she said. “Some viewers just want to feel good again, even if it’s just for a few hours, and ‘In the Heights’ offers that.”

Escapism has been good business for the box office lately.

“A Quiet Place Part II,” which allowed audiences to scream together to fake horrors rather than real-life ones, debuted to the biggest domestic opening of the pandemic so far. “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It,” another horror sequel, won the box office a week later.

Now it’s time for another escapist genre, and a joyful one at that, to take a shot at getting audiences in seats.

“Musicals are part of the rich history of moviegoing,” Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Boxoffice.com, told CNN Business. “There’s an emotional energy unlike any other that emerges from experiencing the best possible presentation of a film with an interactive audience, much like seeing a Broadway play itself.”

The immersive big screen and blaring sound systems of movie theaters could help get people to buy a ticket rather than just stream the film on HBO Max at home. And it certainly helps that the film is from the creator of “Hamilton,” one of the most popular musicals of all time. That popularity likely grew even larger thanks to a filmed version of “Hamilton” debuting on Disney+ last summer.

“Lin-Manuel Miranda’s reputation here is hard to overstate,” Robbins said. “Even to those who haven’t seen ‘Hamilton’ in person, many know of its impact, and that substantially raises the profile of ‘In The Heights.'”

“Why not include us?”

“In The Heights” is loaded with a diverse cast and that could also help it reach audiences who are normally underrepresented in film.

This would be similar to how “Crazy Rich Asians,” another Warner Bros. film with a diverse cast, exceeded expectations in 2018 notching $25 million. The two films share the same director, Jon Chu.

“We need to bury the adage that a diverse cast is a box office risk,” Castillo added. “No matter how many successes movies like the ‘Fast and Furious’ sequels or ‘Black Panther’ have earned, there’s still that perception that it’s a risk.”

Castillo, who is Cuban-American, says that “In the Heights” is ultimately a film with universal themes.

“It’s about people who have business plans, who want to pursue a competitive career, who hopes their daughter will do well in college, how we’re all trying to survive and how many of us could use a winning lottery ticket right about now,” she said.

Yet, the film — like most films right now — faces hurdles.

To break out, the film needs to reach audiences at a time when theaters are still recovering.

“Horror and action films have kept the box office afloat for the majority of the pandemic. While those genres have performed admirably, the industry needs to see a broader spectrum of films have success,” Jeff Bock, the senior analyst at entertainment research firm Exhibitor Relations, told CNN Business.

If ‘In The Heights’ does well at the box office, that will be a win not just for musicals, but it could expand “consumer confidence, and help blaze a trail back to box office normality,” he added.

It could also help usher in more culturally diverse films, according to Castillo.

“There’s only been a handful of Latinx-centric stories produced by studios over the past few years, so if anything, I hope ‘In The Heights’ might be the start of many future films that will change that,” she said. “Latinos accounted for only 5% of speaking roles in the top 100 movies at the box office, but we’re almost 20% of the U.S. population and roughly 25% of moviegoers. Why not include us?”

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