Clearly, adult audiences aren’t going to the movies: Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans” (Universal), a leading Oscar contender with strong critical support and elevated film festival presence, grossed less than $17 million in the U.S./Canada. Except… in its initial week, “80 for Brady” (Paramount) was the #1 film with $19 million.
Here’s what’s going on: Adult audiences are going to the movies. In fact, we suspect they’re going to the movies in about the same numbers they did in pre-COVID — but what’s changed is the movies they choose to see.
As the box office continues to recover, we’ve seen adult-driven specialized cinema remain in a state of collapse. Logic might suggest the problem lies with a slow return by those adult audiences who might face more acute health concerns, but the performance of films like “80 for Brady” and “A Man Called Otto” present a major kink in that narrative.
©Sony Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection
Initially perceived as Oscar bait, Sony changed its tactics when it became clear that reviews would not be kinder than mediocre. Instead, it went with a release strategy that maxed out at 3,802 screens. It might have looked like a Hail Mary pass, but it was not: “Otto” will end its domestic run with $65 million-$70 million — more than the combined gross of 11 nominees in the Best Picture and lead acting categories combined.
Those 11 titles are “The Fabelmans,” “The Banshees of Inisherin,” “The Whale,” “Tar,” “Women Talking,” “Aftersun,” “Triangle of Sadness,” “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “Living,” “To Leslie,” and “Blonde.” The outliers — the Oscar nominees supported, if not propelled, by older audiences — are “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Elvis,” and “Avatar: The Way of Water.”
Opening weekend for “Maverick” saw 55 percent of ticket buyers over 35 (unlike the MPA, studios break down attendance by over- 25, 35, 45, and 55). Other titles that resonated with adults in 2022 include “The Lost City,” which opened last March and reached over $100 million, with 65 percent over 35. Even Channing Tatum’s “Dog” saw 40 percent over 40. “Elvis,” a major hit, initially saw 65 percent over 35.
There’s good reasons for older audiences to return, the decline of COVID being only one of them. Studios took the risk of releasing these films in theaters rather than favoring their streaming channels (many faced that possibility, including “80 for Brady”). Original, non-franchise titles may appeal more to older audiences more than the younger-skewing franchises. And TV — broadcast, cable, or streaming — has lost its habit of catering to older viewers as it once did with “Murder, She Wrote,” “The Golden Girls,” or “ER.” Streaming programs like “The Crown” and “Bridgerton” are packaged for binging.
Based on the last 12 months, we know what attracts adults to theaters? The promise of familiar experiences with non-controversial entertainment. We see it in the stars (Tom Cruise, Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks, the veteran quartet of “80”) and the brands (Agatha Christie, Elvis, best-seller adaptations) Not all adult-oriented hits are feel-good; “Where the Crawdads Sing” involves a gruesome murder. But as a pick for Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine Book Club, much of its audience may have known it would have a happy ending.
That preference may explain the adult-audience disinterest in Oscar contenders. Issues of quality aside, this year’s Oscars picks have a much darker tone. “The Fabelmans,” with Spielberg’s biographical content about his parents’ divorce (and counting on interest in Spielberg’s teenage years as its draw) doesn’t have the same appeal as Best Picture nominees like “1917,” “Ford v. Ferrari,” and “Little Women.”
All credit to Paramount, but “80 for Brady” is not an anomaly. It’s just the latest refutation of the myth that adult audiences don’t go to theaters.
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