‘West Side Story’ and the Death of the American Movie Theater

Director Steven Spielberg’s much anticipated remake of West Side Story opened to a woefully depressing $10.5 million. That is less than the opening for In the Heights – and In the Heights was also streaming for free on HBO/Max at the same time it was in theaters.

With West Side Story, 20th Century Studios took a gamble. Rather than release the film on one of the streaming services to have gained popularity during the pandemic, 20th Century Studios thought they could lure audiences back to the theaters if they made seeing Spielberg’s West Side Story a theater-only experience.

Traditionally, I have always loved going to the movies. In college there was a second run movie theater in my neighborhood that had a different double feature each week for $5. No matter what the movies were, I went every weekend.

Back then movie theater popcorn was made fresh with artery-clogging coconut oil and served drenched in real butter. There was nothing so enjoyable as attending the latest must-see movie in the theater with a big tub of popcorn, plenty of trailers, and your heroes 20 feet tall.

And my affinity for going to the movies didn’t end after college. Movies at one point in time were great for dates – and I dated a lot. When I became a parent, I became a different kind of movie fan – enjoying children’s and family movies. When my children became teenagers and their tastes changed, my movie going experiences changed as well.

Of course, given that I have been involved in the entertainment industry most of my life, it probably comes as no surprise that I love the movie-going experience.

With COVID, things changed. Movie theaters were closed down. Movie distributors redirected their efforts to streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Disney+, and Paramount.

We, as consumers, found something enjoyable about seeing first run films in the comfort of our living rooms. Plus, you could pause the movie for bathroom breaks and snack runs. You could watch and rewatch the film without dropping a bundle on ticket after ticket.

We’ve become accustomed to seeing films at home. Spielberg’s West Side Story says it all.

If anyone felt they “needed” to see Spielberg’s West Side Story starring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Mike Faist, Ariana DeBose, and David Alvarez on opening weekend, it’s probably me.

The original 1961 film adaptation of the Broadway hit was a big influence in my life. I have long admired stars George Chakiris and Russ Tamblyn. It’s my favorite musical and I’ve appeared in 20 different productions. In those 20 productions I have played Tony, Riff, and Bernardo.  The Los Angeles Times called my performance as Tony a “Best Bet!”.

In fact, in the mid-1990s Disney was making plans to do a remake under the direction of Bernardo Bertolucci. The movie never proceeded to the point of being fully cast, but I was one of the actors considered for the role of Riff.

My first album, Broadway Live!, released in 1999, featured songs from West Side Story. It consisted of recordings captured during my live concerts including songs from West Side Story, Evita, Guys and Dolls, and other Broadway hits.

I’d reckon I’ve checked all the boxes on my West Side Story bucket list except for playing one of the adults and directing the show. Both of these I hope to do at some point.

With such a strong bond to West Side Story, you would expect I would have been the first one in line to see Spielberg’s 2021 remake. I thought about it. I really did.

Yet, as much as I want to see the film, I don’t want to shell out $30 to sit in a theater, wearing a mask, potentially exposing me to COVID. Surprising even myself, I decided to wait until I can see the movie at home.

If a Steven Spielberg remake of West Side Story, my favorite musical of all time, can’t get me back into the movie theaters, it does not bode well for the future of movie theaters.

I look forward to seeing Spielberg’s West Side Story. I’ve read reviews saying it’s amazing. It just won’t be for a while – not until I can see it at home.

Peace. Love. Trust.

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One comment

  1. It has nothing to do with theatre going. No one wants to see a re-make of the iconic original. Just like no one wanted to see the filmed RENT or Les Mis. You can’t improve on perfection, so don’t try.

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