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'In the Heights' makes splashy debut amid rising box office optimism — but ticket sales still a question

·3-min read

"In the Heights" made its much-anticipated theatrical debut on Thursday with a simultaneous drop on HBO Max (T), amid hopes that the summer box office will spark a post-pandemic revival for movie theaters still suffering the after-effects of COVID-19.

Insiders believe the musical will strike a triumphant high note at the box office, but the prevalence of streaming platforms is a big hurdle to clear. According to Variety, the film is expected to generate $20 million-plus over the weekend, with the potential to reach $30 million over its first four days in cinemas. 

"In the Heights" will have quite the uphill battle to surpass"A Quiet Place II." The John Krasinski-directed horror sequel, which aired exclusively in theaters, earned a whopping $57 million — shattering expectations and reviving optimism among experts and analysts that movies are making a comeback after COVID-19 lockdowns.

Historically, musicals attract a more niche audience, and lack the same widespread attraction that horror films typically capture at the box office. However, the film has received rave reviews with a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes

Additionally, a new Fandango poll, which surveyed over 1,300 U.S. moviegoers, found that 96% of respondents said "In the Heights" will be the first movie they see post-pandemic — further fueling that big screen momentum. 

(Credit: Macall Polay / Warner Bros. Pictures)
(Credit: Macall Polay / Warner Bros. Pictures)

Still, streaming remains the dominant wild card in the post-COVID era, suggesting it could be harder to pry moviegoers from their living rooms. New data from mobile analytics platform App Annie revealed that HBO Max saw a download bump amid the film's debut, climbing from the number 2 most-downloaded entertainment app among U.S. iPhone users on Thursday, to #1 on Friday. 

Unlike past hybrid releases, like "Cruella" — which came with a $30 rental fee on Disney+ (DIS) — "In the Heights" will be available for no additional charge.  

Hopes build as more movies hit theaters

Box office lineup
Box office lineup

Domestic theater companies could see $5 billion in gross sales in 2021 — driven by a strong slate of movie debuts in the second half of the year.

According to a new note from Bloomberg Intelligence, films like "Dune," "Top Gun: Maverick," "No Time to Die," "Venom 2," and "Eternals" — coupled with loosening capacity limits and restrictions amid the COVID-19 vaccine rollout — will help drive ticket sales. 

Bloomberg's $5 billion projection is higher than most estimates, but reflects a "transitional" year "as the movie industry got back on its feet." Separately, Box Office Pro is forecasting $4.3 billion in 2021 sales, with about $3.2 billion of those receipts coming in the back half of this year. 

"Visibility remains limited, but box office estimates have been steadily rising," Bloomberg Intelligence noted. 

In addition to content, AMC's (AMC) meme stock trading frenzy could also provide an unexpected boost as the theater chain seemingly embraced retail investors — offering free popcorn, special movie screenings and other perks to investors. 

"While this won't necessarily be a box-office game-changer, it may help and sustain moviegoing interest," Bloomberg said. 

AMC's stock is currently up over 2,200% year-to-date. 

AMC seemingly embraced retail investors — offering free popcorn, special movie screenings and other perks to investors.
AMC seemingly embraced retail investors — offering free popcorn, special movie screenings and other perks to investors.

Yet despite a brightening box office outlook, streaming will continue to be a significant hurdle, even after pandemic headwinds subside. 

"Studios have shrunk the exclusive theatrical window to 45 days from 75 while hedging their bets with day-and-date releases on their streaming platforms," Bloomberg said.

While box office sales may top $5 billion this year and $8 billion in 2022, they are "unlikely to ever reach pre-pandemic levels of $11.3 billion in 2019 or 2018's record $11.9 billion," Bloomberg said somberly.

Alexandra is a Producer & Entertainment Correspondent at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @alliecanal8193

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