Universal’s “Dear Evan Hansen” has become the latest Broadway musical adaptation to flop in U.S. theaters, opening below its weak projections to an even-weaker $7.5 million weekend debut, just three months after Warner Bros.’ Lin-Manuel Miranda musical “In the Heights” also failed to launch.
It’s not that the film had huge stars or big buzz, but Universal had certainly hoped the Tony-winning hit from Oscar-winning composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul grappling would find both critical acclaim and commercial success.
But that was before initial scathing reviews turned into viral online ridicule. The show, with original Broadway star Ben Platt reprising his Tony-winning role as an awkward high school student who finds viral fame in faking a friendship with a classmate who committed suicide, had been tracking for a $9 million to $11 million debut.
Reps for Universal declined to comment for this story.
Here are five reasons that “Evan Hansen” struck out with U.S. audiences:
Bad Word of Mouth
When “Dear Evan Hansen” opened this month at the Toronto International Film Festival, critics scorched the film, criticizing everything from the 27-year-old Platt’s believability playing a teenager to the singing itself to the treatment of teenage depression. Currently, the film holds a 33% score on Rotten Tomatoes (though the audience score is a more promising 91%).
And while the opinions of people on “Film Twitter” don’t always correlate to those of the general population, in this case, it mattered: Mainstream media sites (including TheWrap) picked up the negative tweets of film critics and ran headlines that reflected their displeasure of the film, reaching audiences all over the nation.
2. It’s Harder to Turn a Broadway Musical Into a Hit
In recent years, very few big-screen musicals have connected at the box office — particularly ones based on recent Broadway hits as opposed to biomusicals like “Bohemian Rhapsody” or live-action versions of Disney animated musicals like “Aladdin.”
Aside from Miranda’s “Hamilton” — whose film adaptation skipped theaters last year for release on Disney+ — very few recent Broadway hits have achieved the kind of broad popularity that would support a commercial Hollywood hit. The 2019 movie version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s megahit “Cats” grossed just $27 million domestically on a $95 million budget.
And in June, Warner Bros.’ film version of Miranda’s first Tony-winning hit, “In the Heights,” met with sharp disappointment at the box office — opening to $11.5 million and topping out just shy of $30 million in ticket sales. (The company, which released the film simultaneously on HBO Max, has said that streaming viewership has roughly matched the box office performance of its 2021 films.)
Hardly any musicals released in the last decade have permeated wider pop culture the way “Hamilton” did, Comscore analyst Paul Dergarabedian told TheWrap, which may be necessary for a film adaptation to be a hit. Regardless of whether a musical is based on a Broadway show or not, the genre has a wider range of tones and elements that make it a bigger marketing challenge compared to more straightforward genres like horror. “With a horror film, you know you’re going to get scares. With comedies, you know you’re going to get laughs,” he said. “But musicals can touch on so many topics and moods, so moviegoers don’t always know exactly what they’re getting into.”
3. Lack of Major Stars
“Dear Evan Hansen” leaned heavily on its twentysomething cast, led by Platt, Kaitlyn Dever and Amandla Stenberg — but none of them is an established movie star (or even TV star). Indeed, casting Platt to appeal to fans of the Broadway musical might have backfired with mainstream moviegoers who joked about him being too old to play a high schooler.
While the film also featured Amy Adams and Julianne Moore in key roles, neither featured prominently in the show’s marketing campaign.
Jon M. Chu’s “In the Heights,” similarly featured unknown actors, and the lack of name-brand talent might have also hurt it with general audiences — who were also likely unfamiliar with the Tony-winning musical that played on Broadway for nearly three years… a decade ago.
And while casting A-list stars in a musical is no guarantee of box office success — just look at “Cats” — the best-performing big-screener tuners in recent years have relied heavily on bankable actors like Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in “La La Land” and Hugh Jackman and Zendaya in “The Greatest Showman.”
4. A Sensitive Topic – That Critics Say Is Handled Insensitively
Not only did “Dear Evan Hansen” take on the subject of suicide, but critics actually needled the film for its handling of the topic. The Chicago Sun-Times‘ Richard Roeper said the film used teen suicide as a “plot contrivance” and added, “The tonal disconnect between this darker-than-dark material and the ultimately upbeat nature of this tale simply cannot be reconciled.”
And New York Times‘ Jeannette Catsoulis called the film a “troubling work, one that constructs a devious, superficial and at times comedic plot around adolescent mental-health issues.”
Time Magazine’s review slammed Platt’s character as “a troubled kid (who) gets away with monstrous behavior because he’s anxious—oh, so anxious—and just can’t help himself. Meanwhile, another kid dies by suicide and everyone, including his own mother, grasps at straws to think of anything good to say about him.”
Director Stephen Chbosky and the cast have defended the film, arguing that the musical has moved audiences for years. “I saw firsthand how it changes people’s lives, starts conversations,” Platt told Katie Couric during a post-screening Q&A in New York City this month. “Everyone is looking for something to hate right now. We’re bored and outraged and tired and frustrated. I get it.”
5. Bad Timing
There may be no good time to release a film with this many challenges, but “Dear Evan Hansen” opened just one week before Sony’s “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” and two week’s before MGM’s “No Time to Die”, two highly anticipated films that have deep fan bases. With the coronavirus pandemic raging on and people choosing how to spend their movie ticket money, many moviegoers may have decided to hold off and wait for the other films.
Plus, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” just hit the $200 million mark at the domestic box office with stellar reviews, prompting more audiences to show up for yet another Marvel installation than a non-franchise musical.
And while audience response has been good — the film got a solid A- from moviegoers surveyed by CinemaScore — word-of-mouth may not be able to overcome the heavy competition over the coming weeks. This is the fate that befell “In The Heights,” which fell 72% in its second weekend before the release of summer blockbuster “F9” finished off its box office hopes for good.
While a misfire, “Dear Evan Hansen” won’t be a “Cats”-sized bomb or even an “In the Heights”-sized bust for Universal. The film was made on a fraction of the budget of those films at a reported $27 million, and with the studio’s theatrical window deals with major theater chains, the film will likely be moved to digital rentals shortly after its third weekend in theaters.