Why ‘West Side Story’ Flopped - at the Box Office

| 15 Dec 2021 | 05:18

As the kindly professor, I asked my students what they were planning to do over their winter break.

A few looked forward to seeing the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center. Others wanted to check out Radio City Music Hall. Most of the kids said they were looking forward to watching Netflix television shows and movies, playing video games and, of course, sleeping late.

And what about this ballyhooed holiday extravaganza, Steven Spielberg’s remake of 1961’s “West Side Story?”

Judging from the blank stares and the resulting uncomfortable silence, I might as well have been talking about some relic of history, like, say, reruns of “Seinfeld” or Derek Jeter’s highlight reel or the President Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Do you want to understand how Spielberg’s film, which garnered largely rave reviews, could pull in a very disappointing $10 million in its opening weekend? (The ever-polite New York Times called the box office “tepid.”)

There’s your answer. Young people stayed away.

And don’t introduce an exhaustive retelling of the ill effects of the global pandemic. Yes, it was a bummer for movies, concerts and ball games in 2020. But COVID no longer seems to be keeping people away from their entertainment vehicles of choice (though, given the extreme action taken at Cornell and NYU, to curb the effects of the variants, we may again see a back to the future and the problems of 2020 may yet re-emerge).

So, exactly why did the Gen Z’ers prefer to play video games than watch the new “West Side Story?”

Here are a few guesses, with perfect 20/20 hindsight, for I sure expected blowout box office numbers:

A notable lack of star power: If, say, Ariana Grande or Billie Eilish - who turned the ripe old age of 20 last weekend when she hosted and performed on “Saturday Night Live” - had been cast as Maria, there might have been a big buzz. Spielberg admirably tried to cast Spanish-speaking actors and actresses in the Spanish-speaking parts, but that fell flat with this generation. In words that their grandparents heard on all the time an old Wendy’s commercial, Where’s the beef, WHERE IS THE STAR POWER?

Remake This: If you got very excited about the prospect of seeing a remake of one of the most iconic New York-centric films in history, you are ... o-l-d. And I am, too. We have loved the songs, think fondly about Natalie Wood’s raw beauty and the remarkable songs and the incredible singing and dancing. But young people don’t really care. They appreciate high quality entertainment but it seems likely that they didn’t make a trip to the Cineplex a high priority last weekend.

Has Spielberg Jumped the Shark? People of a certain generation went to see “Jaws” in the summer of 1975 and still shudder when they have to go into the ocean. Spielberg’s inventiveness and vision transformed Peter Benchley’s novel into the Movie That Changed Hollywood, a blockbuster like no other when it was released. In short order, we soon got goosebumps at “Star Wars,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “E.T.,” and the “Indiana Jones” films. Later, Spielberg made “Schindler’s List,” a film of sustained brilliance that also produced a huge box office success.

Spielberg, who also directed the moving “Saving Private Ryan,” could do anything in years past. But maybe, just maybe, this younger generation doesn’t appreciate him the way older folks do. And that’s crucial. Spielberg was the biggest name in a prominent position in the remake. If he couldn’t woo large audiences, no one could.