September 20 saw three films go into wide release: One was the latest “Rambo” reboot. One was a space movie starring Brad Pitt. The third was a feature-length version of a British PBS series that’s been off the air for four years.
Nearly three weeks later, “Downton Abbey” has trounced them them all, grossing $137 million worldwide. On the surface, it seems like an oddity: How did the Countess of Grantham hold her own against a well-trod genre franchise and one of the last remaining movie stars?
The answer may be that the dowager had a first-mover advantage. TV dramas could become a primary source of what fuels box office today: Audiences responding to familiar concepts in slightly unfamiliar circumstances.
While Netflix would not comment on the release strategy, the film will spend a weekend in theaters nationwide on about 130 screens. Certainly, it’s a marketing move meant to drive awareness as well as cater to the rabid fanbase that buoyed Vince Gilligan’s passion project across seven Emmy-winning seasons. In this case, box office is not the point (not that it would report it). But if Netflix deems the release a hit, that could suggest the merit of future feature adaptations.
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Cross-platform shapeshifting is as old as mass-market entertainment. From 1929-1946, “The Goldbergs” was hit a comedy-drama broadcast. In 1948, it became a play, “Me and Molly”; from 1949 to 1956, it was a CBS TV series and in 1950 a Paramount Pictures film, and finally a 1973 Broadway musical, “Molly.” (None of this has any relation to current ABC comedy “The Goldbergs.”)
“Downton Abbey” joined a long list of TV adaptations that includes “Mission: Impossible,” “Star Trek,” and “21 Jump Street” films, all of which became self-contained franchises. What makes “Downton” different — and to a lesser degree, “El Camino” — is it may represent the first time that TV dramas have been considered as theatrical fodder. That opens a whole new range of movie possibilities, especially in a time when there’s unprecedented demand for movies that draw on pre-sold concepts.
A theatrical adaptation of “Downton Abbey” represented a solid business opportunity to expand the franchise to new audiences. “The series was wildly successful, and had a huge fanbase around the world,” said Focus Features chairman Peter Kujawski. “The film’s production was driven by the belief that it would be a good business decision overall for [parent company] NBCUniversal to have the ‘Downton’ IP out there in new and bigger ways.”
“Downton Abbey” took a page out of the “Sex and the City” playbook. The beloved HBO series spawned two New Line Cinema films that starred the original cast and continued the show’s storyline a few years after it ended in 2004. Appealing to fans of the original show brought in a combined $703.6 million at the global box office.
Kujawski noted that Focus wouldn’t rush to give other television series theatrical adaptions in an effort to emulate the success of “Downton Abbey.” “If there’s an opportunity that would be meaningful to a theatrical audience, we will always jump at that,” he said. “It’s less about us now saying, ‘We’ve had this success story, and it’s an active space we will go mine.'”
Still, there’s reason to believe that film and TV will continue to evolve into an increasingly friendly ecosystem. One-off, contained experiences are outliers; from podcasts to Quibi, mainstream entertainment shares the common goal of kickstarting franchises that can be exploited for years to come.
With 23 films in about half as many years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Exhibit A; it also boasts more than 10 TV series, and plenty more on the way. MCU projects will eventually become one of the primary selling points for the upcoming Disney+ streaming service, after the platform’s “The Mandalorian” Star Wars series runs its course. (Hey, another franchise with a storied history of cross-platform monetization!)
Similarly, all 30 seasons of “The Simpsons” will be exclusively streamed on Disney+ when it launches November 12. Series creator Matt Groening recently said he expects a sequel to 2007’s “The Simpsons Movie” to happen under Disney, and given the upcoming signal boost, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a new movie. (It remains unclear if that project, should it move forward, will receive a theatrical release.)
Deep in the peak TV and IP-centric eras, studio executives are definitely paying attention to the success of “Downton Abbey,” said Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations. Made for under $20 million, the film combines the ever-desirable elements of low cost, low risk, and high reward while delighting audiences uninterested in men in capes or explosions.
“When shows come to an end, I think there’s an excellent window, and there’s an excellent opportunity to go to movie theaters, as long as you get the same cast and you’re only three to five years out, like ‘Downton Abbey’ was — fans will show up, we’ve clearly seen that,” he said.
He continued: “I think it’s a great sign for moviegoing in general, and studios will keep capitalizing on this trend — it shows you can boost up sales outside of sequels and superheroes.”