Warner Bros.’ “In the Heights,” a big-screen adaptation of “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Tony-winning musical, was supposed to herald a return to movie theaters after a year of COVID shutdown. Instead, it became one of the first box office casualties of the pandemic and streaming eras.
In their new book from publisher William Morrow, “Binge Times: Inside Hollywood’s Furious Billion-Dollar Battle to Take Down Netflix,” entertainment reporters Dade Hayes and Dawn Chmielewski explore that misfire and how it resulted from the rush into streaming by several media and tech companies determined to catch up with Netflix.
Amid the frenzy, as well as the coronavirus pandemic, the box office devolved into something far from the well-oiled machine that cranked out $11.4 billion in domestic grosses in 2019. WarnerMedia’s highly controversial “Project Popcorn” experiment, which put Warner Bros’ entire 2021 theatrical slate on HBO Max at the same time it hit cinemas, and Disney’s “Premier Access” gambit, which charged Disney+ subscribers extra to stream its new releases, were two major initiatives that smashed conventions in the name of streaming.
In an exclusive excerpt from “Binge Times” below, we get a front row seat to the “In the Heights” world premiere on June 9 as the musical kicked off the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. Though it received rhapsodic reviews, it streamed on HBO Max within hours of its world premiere, and proved a box office disappointment.
This excerpt has been edited for style.
Lin-Manuel Miranda grabbed the microphone from Robert De Niro and jumped around the stage like an unleashed labradoodle. “Well, what’s up, ‘In the Heights’ opening night?!” he joyously shouted. The crowd in the United Palace roared its approval. Moviegoing, 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 celebratory, even giddy, a mood uncannily matched by the high-spirited film itself. The premiere of “In the Heights” was kicking 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,” Tribeca cofounder De Niro said before the lights went down, “the simple act of going out to a movie theater was something that you would take for granted. Now we remember that it’s a special event.”
Miranda and his family contributed to the restoration of the United Palace, which was built in 1930 as one of five Loew’s “Wonder Theatres” in New York. It takes up a full city block in Washington Heights, the neighborhood that was the namesake, subject, and shooting location for the film. Miranda still lives there, where he was born and raised. Hundreds of residents lined Upper Broadway on the sultry late-spring evening of the gala, snapping pics with cell phones and taking in the pageantry that almost never came to their own block. On a plaza next to the theater, Warner Bros. had rolled out a yellow carpet and erected a photo-friendly version of the kinds of shops that actually sat just a few hundred feet past the security gates. The simulacrum came complete with an ersatz bodega.
A dozen bursts of applause greeted the film’s spectacular dance sequences. Due to COVID safety protocols, only a few hundred fully vaccinated guests were allowed inside the theater, which seats 3,300. They occupied every other row, but their reaction resonated beyond the attendance figures. Streaming was never mentioned in any of the official remarks, but the poster art for the film included the standard pitch — “See it in theaters / also on HBO Max” — in small type. Not even two hours after its world premiere, the film would become available to stream, a stark departure from longtime 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 Project Popcorn, he still viewed “In the Heights” as a big-screen experience. “ALERT!! Box Office matters,” Chu tweeted on the day of the premiere. “Show up. Buy a ticket for a friend, a school, coworkers, total strangers whoever needs to see it. Each ticket is a vote for more movies that showcase the incredible Latina/Latino talent & stories that are still out there. Make it a fact.”
The party after the screening, held at an open-air, riverside venue called the Hudson, felt like the Before Times. Hugs, kisses, and handshakes were freely exchanged. Crowds formed packed lines for rum cocktails and platters of Cuban food. Spontaneous salsa dances broke out, including a joyous one featuring Miranda and Olga Merediz, who originated the role of Abuela Claudia onstage and played her in the film. Jason Kilar, who had announced he planned to continue in the CEO role at WarnerMedia until the close of the Discovery merger, didn’t dance, but he came pretty close. Beaming a bright smile, he said the premiere was his fourth time seeing the film. Showing the fanboy zeal 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 poignant song sung by Merediz, whose character is caught between life and death but embraces “paciencia y fe” (patience and faith), “never hit me as hard as it did tonight,” Kilar said.
The exec gave a bear hug to Chu, whose “Crazy Rich Asians” had been a watershed hit for Warner Bros. before Kilar’s time, in 2018. A media CEO attending the party who spoke to Chu said he had asked him earlier in the evening what he thought about the film’s being on HBO Max. “No comment,” the director replied. While the party mood was ebullient, several attendees expressed doubt about the commercial prospects for “In the Heights.” It featured Jimmy Smits, Miranda, Marc Anthony, and other recognizable names in its ensemble cast, but none was a proven box-office draw. All-Latino casts remained a rare sight in the film business. Even though a 2019 study had shown that 24 percent of those who attend movies once a month are Latino, only 4 percent of films released in recent years had a single Latino character among the leads. “People will probably come out for it in New York and L.A., but I do wonder about the rest of the country,” one exhibition executive said. Another exec not working at Warner Bros. agreed: “It plays through the roof, but I wonder if people will turn out. It’s not Hamilton.”
As the party continued past midnight, not long after the end credits had scrolled up the big screen at the United Palace, “In the Heights” began streaming on HBO Max. It wasn’t the first film to stream “day and date” with its theatrical opening, but the timing of the premiere made the digital availability seem especially abrupt.
As the film hit streaming, its box office fell short of projections. It finished with a wan $11.5 million in its opening weekend, despite rapturous reviews and overall momentum at the box office in prior weeks. It wasn’t that Covid-anxious audiences were avoiding theaters — though perhaps 18-to-24-year-olds, who tend to be the most avid moviegoers, had returned to the multiplex first. The week’s top-grossing film, “A Quiet Place Part II,” brought in $11.7 million to push the film past the $100 million mark, making it the first blockbuster since the pandemic. Disney’s “Cruella” rang up $6.7 million in domestic box-office sales, bringing in a total of $56 million—not including the revenue from those who opted to watch the Cruella de Vil origin story at home at a $30 Premier Access premium for Disney+ subscribers.
How much had HBO Max sapped from box-office revenue, and was the trade-off worth it? It would be difficult to say, even once the numbers had been tallied. Other day-and-date Warner Bros. releases, such as “Godzilla vs. Kong” and “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It,” had fared well theatrically even as they also goosed HBO Max subscriber numbers. Warner Bros. had an industry-leading 35 percent market share heading into the release of “In the Heights.” But were those movies resonating like they usually would? Patty Jenkins, director of “Wonder Woman” and its HBO Max–streamed sequel, offered a barbed assessment of the 2021 marketplace in an appearance at industry conference CinemaCon. “All of the films that streaming services are putting out, I’m sorry, they look like fake movies to me,” she said, saying the decision to move forward with day-and-date on “Wonder Woman 1984” had been a “very, very, very difficult” one. “I don’t hear about them, I don’t read about them. It’s not working as a model for establishing legendary greatness.”
Jenkins wasn’t alone. One lingering effect of Project Popcorn was the reputational harm to the studio, even after financial settlements were reached with talent. AT&T and Kilar had taken most of the blame for the poorly communicated message to the creative community, but the ill will lingered. In a rare on-the-record comment to the Los Angeles Times, CAA co-chairman Bryan Lourd said of Warner Bros. studio chief Toby Emmerich, “There’s the Toby that I know that is super artist friendly and built a career on relationships, and then there’s the Toby that’s had to work for people that made him deliver just the opposite of artist-friendly news.” Asked if he thought the studio had repaired the damage to its talent relationships, Lourd offered a blunt reply: “No, I don’t.”
Among the guests at the “In the Heights” premiere was a longtime executive at Discovery. After 22 years at the company, having seen it rise from a straitlaced purveyor of nature documentaries to a global powerhouse known more for snackable reality series like “Flip or Flop” and “90 Day Fiancée,” he expressed an optimism about the merger that bordered on the Pollyannaish. “The IP is in amazing shape — Warner Bros. is just killing it, HBO is killing it,” he said. “We just have to fix the corporate culture. People need to know that they can work together. It’s really early for that but I think it will be great once we get everybody together.”
At the valet, about to climb into a black Escalade, he spotted an executive from WarnerMedia and offered an even more fulsome 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 believed they understood the film and TV 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 by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
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