With the constant talk of IPs and franchises taking over theaters to attract younger audiences, something is often overlooked: the continued box office power of adults and the potential of franchises made for them.
The 35-and-older crowd fueled some of 2022’s biggest hits
According to ComScore, they comprise 54% of domestic ticket buyers for the year’s biggest hits, the $719 million-grossing sequel “Top Gun: Maverick,” along with 57% of the audience for the $151 million-winning biopic “Elvis.” And half the voter for the $67.1 million-grossing action “The Woman King,” all three AFI Award Movie of the Year winners and other top nominations and a Golden Globe win for “Elvis” star Austin Butler.
Several adult-driven hits were released just before the pandemic — like 2019 Best Picture Oscar winner “Parasite” (61% of its domestic audience was 35-plus, part of its $262.6 million global haul) and “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood ” (75% were 35-plus from taking $61.7 million) — showing the potential for a return to Artier fare and the promise of a mature franchise. And no distributor is investing more than Comcast/NBCUniversal’s specialty division Focus Features.
Extending its success with the 2019 big-screen adaptation of “Downton Abbey” (78% of domestic tickets were bought by the $194.7 million 35-plus demo for Focus/Universal) and 2022’s “Downton Abbey: A New Era.” (75% of ticket buyers were 35-plus, the film scored $92.6 million internationally), with more work in the works in distribution. On Mother’s Day they will release “Book Club: The Next Chapter,” Paramount’s sequel to the $104.4 million global hit from 2018 with retired-age stars Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenbergen. This year, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3” will follow Universal’s 2016 sequel (which grossed $90.6 million worldwide) and the 2002 IFC Films original (which grossed $368.7 million worldwide). And Robert Eggers’ now-filmed “Nosferatu” shows promise as an artistic horror franchise.
“It didn’t take long for us to bond [‘Downton’] Experience in what we consider auteur filmmakers to be our core competency,” said Peter Kujawski, chairman of Focus Features. “It’s about finding ways to offer audiences that feeling of a warm embrace of the familiar while still giving them something new every time. With ‘Downton,’ where the audience has a deep connection with this world and these characters, we added new layers, like the introduction of the king and queen and the trip to France.”
The success of the adult franchise could help specialty distributors land an awards-season win for “Tár,” which Kujawski expects will significantly exceed its $5.6 million domestic gross when it’s released overseas this year. “We see it the same way as most studios or independent distributors — everyone is taking some sort of portfolio approach [the movies they’re making],” he said.
And while no one is expecting a McDonald’s Happy Meal tie-in, there are opportunities for merchandising and other efforts. An exhibit of “Downton” sets and memorabilia is now touring the world, and specials like “Let the Right One In,” “Fargo,” “Snow Piercer” and “Hannah” have found new life and profit as TV series.
Those who question whether adult franchises can succeed need look no further than Arian Johnson’s “Knife Out” mystery. After the 2019 original grossed $312.8 million worldwide, Netflix paid $450 million for two more films. According to ComScore, 61 percent of the original’s domestic audience was 35-plus.
“I don’t really consider them sequels,” Johnson said. “Taking a page from the way Agatha Christie wrote her books, I can use the same premise of a detective character as a launching pad. [for] Something different every time: mixing genres, shaking up the tone, taking wild narrative swings. It almost gives me cover to present something that the audience wants to see, but it can really swing for the fences.”
Does he envision more “knife out” movies?” “As long as it feels like this I’ll keep doing them,” he says. “I’m going straight to the third one though, and hopefully I’ll make a few more things before I move on, if I These two keep my creative experience going but I can see myself coming back every few years to do one, for as long as it takes [star] Daniel [Craig] Ready for it.”
Franchises for adults arguably have a broader definition than sequels, remakes, reboots, or spinoffs that feature familiar characters. Older audiences seek out repeated films by specific auteurs with specific styles, from Pedro Almodovar to Quentin Tarantino. Wes Anderson, who directed the $45.5 million-grossing comedy “Moonrise Kingdom” for Focus in 2012, returns June 16 with another star-studded comedy-drama “Asteroid City.” Focus will also release Ethan Coen’s first solo narrative feature. Although there are few details about the untitled project, Kujawski said “it will feel like a lot has been done before Ethan,” along with his brother Joel Coen, “people liked a lot.”
Some genres can be considered adult franchises in their own right. The musical biopic is a: For 2019’s R-rated Elton John story “Rocketman,” which grossed $98.3 million, 68% of viewers were 35-plus. Results may vary, though. “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” earned $29.4 million worldwide over the weekend.
Other distinctive formulas include films with older actors such as “Book Club” and Feb. 3 “80 for Brady” with Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, Rita Moreno and Sally Field. The rom-com is on life support in theaters, but the star power of George Clooney, 61, and Julia Roberts, 55, overcame mixed reviews and led their “Ticket to Paradise” gross to $68.2 million, with 63% from the 35-year-old -Plus Cinema audience
Another 2022 hit driven by older audiences was the mystery thriller adaptation “Where the Crawdads Sing,” which overcame mostly weak reviews to gross $90.2 million, with 52% of ticket buyers 35 and older. “Like their Gen Z counterparts, it may be star power, plot and, especially, marketing power that drive these audiences to multiplexes,” said Paul Dergarbedian, senior media analyst at ComScore. “Films like ‘Top Gun: Maverick,’ ‘Elvis,’ ‘Why the Crowds Sing,’ ‘Downton Abbey: A New Era,’ and of course ‘Ticket to Paradise,’ all had the perfect combination of factors that were a spark for more. Invigorating adult moviegoers, especially this past summer, saw a strong slate of films aimed at bettering this audience share at the ticket booth.”
Film historian Jeanine Basinger, author of “Hollywood: The Oral History” (co-written with Sam Wasson), says the appeal of adult franchises is nothing new. “In Hollywood in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, serial films like ‘Blondy’ and ‘Torchy Blaine’ were franchises,” she says. “They were very popular with the older audience. Although you would think ‘Tarzan’ too [the family-centered] While ‘Andy Hardy’ films are meant for kids, older people like them a lot. People love repeating characters. And now when I go to the movies, I see more old people than young people in the theater. Going to the movies is our habit and we want to go back.”