Plexes vexed by falling teen spirit

Specialty pix find older auds' favor

Are the megaplexes turning gray?

As studios sift through the market research on this summer’s box office, a consensus is growing that young people — particularly young guys — are getting harder to herd into megaplexes.

But even as the sort of pics that once attracted young males struggle — think “The Island” or “Stealth” — specialty films that appeal to older adults appear to be thriving.

Boxoffice is down 7% this year, so when final figures are tallied, all demographic groups are likely to show declines. But the steepest decline appears to be in the young male quadrant.

There are several possible reasons. Either younger adults are too distracted by vidgames, DVDs and the Internet; or the quality of films was worse this year; or the price of tickets, popcorn and parking has increased too much. Or all three factors are to blame.

A recent study from consumer research firm OTX said males aged 13-25 reported seeing 24% fewer films this past summer, nearly double the drop of the rest of the demo segments.

Another study by Nielsen Entertainment’s NRG, currently being reviewed by studios, is expected to show similar aud trends when it is released.

The Motion Picture Assn. of America’s 2004 attendance study, released last March, showed younger people have been buying fewer tickets for the last two years.

In 2002, ticket sales were evenly divided between moviegoers aged 12-29 and those age 30 and up, with each group buying about 815 million tickets.

Two years later in 2004, older moviegoers are relatively steady, buying 811 million tickets, while people ages 12-29 purchased just 719 million, a drop of 12%.

Attendance figures for 2005 won’t be released until next March at the ShoWest confab.

National Assn. of Theater Owners prexy John Fithian, who has spent much of this year rebutting claims that moviegoing is passe, acknowledges that a demographic shift may be underway at the box office.

“The primary reason for the box office slump has been the quality of the movies,” he said last week in Orlando where exhibs and distribs gathered for ShowEast. “Longer term, however, there is a shift of the demographics and the older patrons are coming more and the younger patrons are coming less. As a longterm concern, we have to find a way to continue to attract young people to the movies.”

MPAA chief Dan Glickman adds, “I suspect there are so many forms of alternative entertainment for younger people — from videogames to the Internet — there’s just more competition out there. We don’t want to give up on that demographic. The trick is finding the right kind of material that appeals to them.”

Even so, specialty films have been surprisingly strong. While grosses from the major studios’ slates are down 3% this year, their specialty labels have surged 29%, on the back of titles like Warner Independent Pictures’ “March of the Penguins” ($76 million) and Focus Features’ “The Constant Gardener” ($33 million).

And that’s before the fall rush of awards titles really kick in. Sony Pictures Classics’ “Capote” and WIP’s “Good Night, and Good Luck” have opened well in limited release. Focus, which has two titles to go this year — “The Ice Harvest” and “Brokeback Mountain” — has has already grossed more in 2005, with $102 million, than it did during the entirety of last year ($96 million).

While this year lacked indie blockbusters to match last year’s “The Passion of the Christ” and “Fahrenheit 9/11,” that market sector has been remarkably resilient. Lions Gate turned two titles that drew primarily older adults — “Crash” and “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” — into $50 million-plus hits.

Combined, specialty divisions at the studios and indies have grossed a bit more than $1 billion this year, which is 22% higher than the total through this point last year if “Passion” and “Fahrenheit” are subtracted.

In some ways, studios are beginning to think of younger auds in the same ways they have thought about older adults.

Those filmgoers, Paramount distrib prexy Wayne Lewellen explains, “have been the most difficult audience to move into theaters until a film establishes credibility through word of mouth.”

While younger auds were seen as more willing to turn up on opening weekends, the media competing for their attention, he says, may be making them more choosy. “That demographic is the first to accept and try new technology, whether it’s video games or new cell phones,” Lewellen says.

The study from OTX largely supports those views. While it showed that people regarded this summer’s films as generally the same level of quality as last summer, auds were much more selective about what they decided to see.

This was most pronounced in the young male quadrant. Only 25% of males under 25 said there was an “excellent selection” of movies for them to choose from this past summer. In 2003, 60% said the same.

To some studio execs, this lack of interest is simply a call for them to make films young people like better.

“It seems to me that if you have a movie that is compelling and you can make it look compelling, that age group shows up in the same numbers they always have,” says DreamWorks distrib topper Jim Tharp.

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