The failure of Universal’s Dear Evan Hansen at the domestic box office with a $7.5M opening didn’t really surprise anyone after the movie was torn apart by critics post its TIFF world premiere. But the latest misfire by a feature adaptation of a Broadway musical raises plenty of questions about the sub-genre’s fate at the box office.
Should Dear Evan Hansen, in its limited appeal, have had its debut on streaming instead of in theaters? Or go day-and-date theatrical and streaming?
After all, NBCUniversal’s streaming service Peacock desperately needs the product, so much so that they decided to make the sequel to their blockbuster horror reboot, Halloween Kills, a day-and-date attraction on Oct. 15 (that movie came on tracking Thursday to a $45M-$50M opening, which has box office analysts perplexed how such a gross is possible when it’s also available on the streaming service’s premium subscription tier).
But in regards to Dear Evan Hansen, what remains shocking is how a critically beloved and popular stage musical, which made over $226M in its roughly four years on Broadway, becomes simply dismissed on the big screen.
Look, Universal wasn’t doing anything experimental here with Dear Evan Hansen. This wasn’t Gasper Noe or Ari Aster’s upside-down version of Dear Evan Hansen. Similar to Universal’s Les Miserables and Mamma Mia! franchise (which all combined grossed $1.45B at the WW box office), the studio made the most faithful take on Dear Evan Hansen as they could, tapping Stephen Chbosky, a filmmaker known for emotional young adult dramas, and casting the project up with such awards-lauded actresses like Amy Addams and Julianne Moore, rising Booksmart star Kaitlyn Dever, and staying true to the musical’s roots by keeping Ben Platt, who originated and wowed in the title role with his low-to-high emotional singing.
It was a logical greenlight, given the musical’s momentum at the time, for Uni to win the bid on the package. Furthermore, Dear Evan Hansen came from producer Marc Platt, who the studio has had a longstanding relationship with (he’s also Ben’s father).
Then, why in God’s name did this musical go sideways? Why would movie critics shun a piece of art which was faithfully translated from the stage?
The most immediate answers about Dear Evan Hansen‘s downfall is the simple fact that in a prolonged pandemic, those returning to the cinemas are looking for escapism, not a near 2 1/2 hour cry, especially a ballad-filled drama. However, even pre-pandemic, a musical with a protagonist who isn’t likable or sympathetic is difficult to sell. Not to mention, a movie that touches on suicide must be perfect. Also, putting this film at Christmas arguably may not have made much of a difference. The movie would have still had the same inherent problems. I think Uni knew this, which is why they didn’t screen the film in advance for critics ahead of TIFF.
Another pandemic conundrum for Uni is that Broadway musicals cater to older audiences, and we know that demographic is having a very hard time turning out at the cinema during the pandemic. Dear Evan Hansen was geared at young adults, not young adults and parents, so unfortunately, Uni loses the latter core audience for the film. The under-35 demo repped 71% of Dear Evan Hansen‘s audience.
While Dear Evan Hansen fans who showed up gave it an A- CinemaScore, sometimes a musical, such as Les Mis, has to provide fans of the Broadway musical something more than a redux of what they’ve already seen on stage.
Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway performing Les Mis was something no fan of that musical had ever seen, and was well worth the movie ticket price, not to mention Tom Hooper’s technique of recording the soundtrack live on set, versus pre-recorded, took the musical to another level. And, right there, that’s likely the nuanced secret to success with Broadway fare on the big screen: Give everyone a little something more that they haven’t seen, and also make sure they send the audience home singing. I would say that Dear Evan Hansen songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul had more hummable, jazzy tunes in the original La La Land with “Another Day of Sun” and “Someone in the Crowd” to send us home with a skip in our step.
Additionally, what works in NYC plays best on the coasts, especially in the Northeast, as we saw with In the Heights having its most vibrant ticket sales there. Dear Evan Hansen over-indexed in Salt Lake City over the weekend, with five its top grossing cinemas being in theater. It just so happens that YA movies work in the Utah capital.
In the wake of musicals’ revival on the big screen post-2003 Oscar Best Picture winner Chicago ($170.7M, $306.8M WW), even though we’ve seen great successes from both Broadway adaptions like Les Mis and Mamma Mia, and completely original fare for the big screen, i.e. The Greatest Showman and La La Land, the fact of the matter is that musicals remain the riskiest subgenre at the box office from both a critical and sheer box office perspective.
If you take a look, some of the most popular, top-grossing Broadway musicals which made their way into movie theaters have been widely panned by film reviews, and failed to reap any kind of great financial success, i.e. Rent ($29M domestic B.O., $31.7M WW), 2005’s The Producers ($19.4M, $38M WW), Phantom of the Opera ($51.3M domestic, $154.6M WW), and even pre-Chicago, Madonna’s Evita ($50M domestic, $141M WW on a $55M pricetag before P&A spend).
Even Chicago director Rob Marshall, himself in his second feature musical, Nine, given that starry package of Daniel Day Lewis, Fergie, Nicole Kidman, Marion Cottillard, Penelope Cruz, and Kate Hudson, couldn’t replicate the success of his Oscar Best Picture winner, seeing 39% Rotten Tomatoes reviews and a final box office of less than $20M domestic, and $54M WW.
Given Disney’s family packaging of Marshall’s take on Stephen Sondheim’s (the quirkiest of Broadways scribes who doesn’t always spell mass appeal) Into the Woods, that pic became a 2014 year-end holiday event at $212.9M WW. But overall, Broadway largely has a hard time translating at the domestic B.O.
Had Universal sold Dear Evan Hansen to Netflix or Amazon, they would have certainly made bank, and cut their P&A spend ever more. But how much of a splash or resonance would the movie have made? And would it have been worth it to buy out talent on the project?
The feature version of seven-time Tony nominated The Prom went straight to Netflix (after a short limited theatrical run where grosses weren’t reported) with Ryan Murphy directing and a tricked-out cast that included Meryl Streep, Kerry Washington, Nicole Kidman, James Corden and more. Critically, like most of the musicals mentioned in this piece, The Prom was bashed on Rotten Tomatoes at 54%. We don’t know anything about its overall viewership success, as it didn’t crack Netflix’s most-watched movies around the globe. The tenth and eleventh most-watched titles on that list, Army of the Dead and Midnight Sky, pulled in 72M households WW. Is anyone still talking about The Prom?
Sending Dear Evan Hansen straight to Peacock wouldn’t have raised eyebrows in a way that the studio is looking to draw people to the service with a franchise like Halloween Kills. Not to mention, making Dear Evan Hansen available immediately day-and-date in theaters and on Peacock would have significantly collapsed the pic’s ancillary windows, and as we’ve seen with Warner Bros.’ Cry Macho, Malignant, and In the Heights, when the movies don’t work at the box office, they’re equally lackluster on the service.
So at the end of the day, even with a poor ticket sales, Dear Evan Hansen‘s best place is in theaters and with a theatrical window. And it’s a short one at 17-days until PVOD. The movie will still qualify for Universal’s long-term lucrative international television output deals. And because it was a theatrical release, that raises the movie’s profile, and makes it stand out on any PVOD, streaming menu, heck, even the pay TV cable windows where Universal is licensing its library and still making dough (the studio’s 2022 live-action slate and beyond will have its Pay One window with Amazon).
Not to mention, as studios send titles to streaming in their initial window and buy talent out of their deals, it’s arguably an inflated price process. Word is that enabling Halloween Kills to go day-and-date was easy when it came to that pic’s participation players: Universal cashed them out like it was already a blockbuster hit. With Dear Evan Hansen, already at a low $27M net production cost, Uni had to cut its losses. Why would they pay out talent like it was a blockbuster when they knew Dear Evan Hansen wasn’t going to work?