‘Downton Abbey’ Sequel Confronts a New Era for Films Aimed at Older Audiences

Will older fans turn out for the second film? And what will we learn if they do?
‘Downton Abbey’ Sequel Confronts Films Aimed at Older Audiences
"Downton Abbey: A New Era"
Focus Features

This week, “Downton Abbey: A New Era” (Focus) opens in the U.S./Canada (two weeks after its initial international dates, including the UK). In its first weekend, the second film following the popular TV series will likely gross less than half of what “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” took in for its initial Thursday showings. But if the sequel does anything close to that, it will be a positive step for its primary audience: older moviegoers, a sector that is struggling.

Back in pre-COVID history (September 2019), “Downton Abbey,” the feature film version of Julian Fellowes’ hit series, which followed an early 20th century British aristocratic family, opened to $31 million in the U.S./Canada. It ended up just under $100 million, a little short of $200 million worldwide.

That made it, in unadjusted terms, Focus Features’ biggest grossing domestic title (adjusted to current ticket prices, both “Brokeback Mountain” and “Coraline” higher). Naturally, a sequel was quickly planned.

Still, the normal rules that make green-lighting most successful sequels were less relevant here. History, the intended audience, and, most of all, the timing of the go-ahead all might have argued against taking the risk. These same factors play into expectations about how the film will perform.

By the time filming had started a little over a year ago, signs already suggested that its audience might be slower in returning to theaters than younger ones. The spring of 2021 saw most theaters reopened, but those patronizing were mostly aged under 35. In general, even as vaccinations were under way, it wasn’t hard to project that the intended audience was initially reluctant to venture into theaters.

Death on the Nile
“Death on the Nile”20th Century Studios

“A New Era” was initially set for a February 2022 release. Amid rumors of alternative play (PVOD direct or Peacock, both potential viable options), Focus stuck with theatrical. Meantime, the few comparable films that have been released wide show the risk involved. “West Side Story,” mostly dependent on older viewers, failed to register. “Death on the Nile” exceeded expectations — but still grossed less than half of its predecessor “Murder on the Orient Express” (domestic), and only 40 percent worldwide.

That said, its $13 million opening stands as the biggest precedent in the reopening era. Is the May situation better than February? Overall, grosses are rising somewhat. “The Lost City,” one at least more female/somewhat older appeal title, has made close to $100 million (it opened to $30 million, bolstered by its star power of Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum).

Another reason it’s tricky to guess much higher is the broader nature of the film. It is something unusual in its being a sequel to a movie that transferred from a TV show with most elements intact. TV shows have of course led to film franchises (“Star Trek,” which kicked off its film arm four decades ago, is the biggest success), but otherwise, two theatrical films of a TV offshoot are rare. From dramas, even more so.

The closest recent example, one with some overlap in terms of interest from more upscale audiences, is the two “Sex in the City” movies following the end of the original HBO series. The first opened to $51 million in 2008 ($153 million total). Its 2010 sequel had a $31 million start before reaching $97 million total.

Both were fine, but the drop-off between the first and second was steep after a hit film. Is that because one satisfied the itch, at least to the same degree?

One example isn’t proof, but it hints that once then was enough for some of the initial fans. If “A New Era” performed the same, it would open to $18-19 million. But few films now are performing as well as pre-COVID, so that seems less likely.

"Downton Abbey: A New Era"
“Downton Abbey: A New Era”Focus Features

Other issues affecting its audience include that, unlike the acclaimed TV show, the reviews have been more tepid for the two movies. It obviously had little impact on the first (they were favorable, just not glowing). But with those for “A New Era” a notch lower, will that catch the attention of an audience resistant to going?

And that audience, along with those with children, have become accustomed to seeing top recent films at home via VOD or streaming. No one should assume that most potential viewers are aware of the chance that this will reach PVOD (as is normal with Focus release) after three weekends in theaters. But generally, the default thinking from moviegoers is that it should be around before too long, and that alternative is made no less palatable from a film that, after all, has its roots in home viewing.

One move the filmmakers took that does seem smart is setting a good part of it in the south of France. “Downton Abbey” rarely strayed far from Downton Abbey proper, so relocating its main characters to a different place has appeal. More so perhaps as a symbol of people breaking away from a close to home routine — just as Focus hopes will happen with relevant fans.

The range of expectations for the weekend (one with only “Men”/A24 competing as a new release, for a younger crowd) is bigger than usual. Anything +/- $5 million from a $15 million take has been projected.

Judging box office success these days in part requires grading on a curve, though past comparisons remain valid. If this does do $15 million initially, figure that’s, at minimum, a step in the right direction to getting more people back into theaters.

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