December 30, 2021

THE END OF MOVIE THEATERS — PART 22:

One single data point sums it up.

“Spider-Man: No Way Home” collected $260 million in the United States and Canada on its opening weekend. Total ticket sales for the two countries totaled $283 million, according to Comscore. That means “No Way Home” made up 92 percent of the market. “Nightmare Alley,” which was released on the same weekend, played to virtually empty auditoriums. It took in $2.7 million.”

92 percent of the market. It’s a staggering figure that shows just how dead movie theaters are.

Blockbusters had been swallowing up more and more of the theater marketplace with the entire industry increasingly built around $100 million and then $250 million and then $1 billion massive movies with less room for midsize movies. Combine that with the pandemic and you have movie theaters built around a handful of huge blockbusters and nothing else. Literally.

It was in this environment that Steven Spielberg made one of the worst decisions of his career: Say what? The ethnic irony of Spielberg’s West Side Story:

While it’s the music that many of us associate with “West Side Story,” much of the story is told through spoken language, with the Sharks in Mr. Spielberg’s version, the Puerto Ricans, speaking Spanish and their adversaries, the Jets, speaking English.

Forgoing subtitles for the Spanish dialogue was a deliberate decision. “If I subtitled the Spanish,” Mr. Spielberg told entertainment digital media platform IGN, “I’d simply be doubling down on the English and giving English the power over the Spanish … I needed to respect the language enough not to subtitle it.”

This was an artistically bold choice. But the decision also sidelines the vast majority of the film’s potential audience, since Spanish speakers represent just 13% of the American public, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

This means substantial parts of the film are inaccessible, or at the very least are hard to track, for non-Spanish speakers. While the scenes are artfully scripted and acted, and sometimes use a mix of English and Spanish dialogue — which attentive audience members may be able to follow — many non-Spanish speakers will get lost or lose interest.

Losing interest you say? With just $36.6 million in ticket sales, West Side Story is officially a box-office bomb. “In its first three weeks in cinemas, the film has captured just $36.6 million in global ticket sales. Its production budget was around $100 million, not including marketing costs.”

CNBC’s article at that last link doesn’t even mention the lack of subtitles, despite it being a decision on-par with Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories commercial suicide that helped to kill off United Artists. Assuming movies will still be shown in theaters going forward, Spielberg’s “artistically bold choice” could ensure that no director will be given final cut by a studio ever again.

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