You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

From ‘Bridge of Spies’ to ‘Beasts of No Nation,’ Studios Duke it Out for Adult Audiences

At the movies, the competition for adult audiences is getting downright gladiatorial.

Nine of the top 15 highest-grossing films this weekend were pitched at ticket buyers of voting age — a demographic fight that left some pictures, such as “Crimson Peak,” fatally wounded. That’s to say nothing of the scores of limited release pictures such as the journalistic thriller “Truth” and the child soldiers drama “Beasts of No Nation,” that arrive every seven days or so with the hopes that critical hosannas will allow them to transcend the art house.

“I’ve never seen it so full,” said Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, the studio behind “Truth.” “It’s been a long, long time since there were this many movies for the adult audience.”

After a summer of popcorn films pegged at teenagers, silly season is over. Older moviegoers are now facing an overabundance of viable, acclaimed dramas, thrillers and comedies that shine a light on everything from enhanced interrogation techniques to the war on drugs. The result may be too much of a good thing.

“It’s tough for studios because even if they know they have a good movie, they risk being lost in the miasma of quality content,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak. “Studios may have to start strategizing their release patterns in the fall better, so they have more room to stick out.”

Popular on Variety

Not everyone makes it through their bout in the arena. “Crimson Peak,” a stylish Gothic romance with an R-rating, drew an older female crowd, but only managed to make $12.8 million in its initial weekend, putting the $55 million production in a deep hole if it wants to turn a profit. Likewise, “The Walk,” Robert Zemeckis’ stunning recreation of acrobat Philippe Petit’s high-wire jaunt between the Twin Towers, never established a foothold, sinking with a mere $9.1 million after three weeks in theaters. Even good reviews weren’t enough to save it. The picture earned a sterling 85% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an A- CinemaScore.

There have been victors along the way, of course. “The Martian,” a science fiction adventure about a stranded astronaut, has been a box office smash by appealing primarily to older males. Fifty nine percent of the picture’s opening weekend crowd was over 35, and 72% of its sophomore weekend audience was over 25 years old. And Lionsgate deftly got a head start on a crowded fall by debuting the border thriller “Sicario” in early September, watching it rope in adults to the tune of $34.7 million over five weeks.

Perhaps no film will be as closely watched as “Steve Jobs.” The biopic about the Apple founder scored the year’s best per-screen average when it debuted in six screens. It further impressed this weekend when it expanded to 60 theaters, earning a sizable $1.5 million in the process. But the big test will be whether or not it can ride the wave of good reviews to mainstream success when it bows on thousands of screens next week.

The results have been more mixed for other pictures. “Bridge of Spies” earned some of the best notices of director Steven Spielberg’s career and bowed to a respectable $15.4 million. However, going into the weekend some analysts had expected the film would premiere to roughly $18 million driven by critical acclaim and star Tom Hanks’ appeal. Disney, which is distributing the picture, blamed the playoff contests between the Cubs and the Mets and the Royals and the Blue Jays, while predicting the picture would be able to build momentum in the coming weeks.

“The great baseball match ups tugged a bit on the attendance,” said Dave Hollis, Disney’s distribution chief. “But we’re going to get great word of mouth. Everyone who has seen this movie has come away with an overwhelmingly positive opinion.”

And while the idea of platforming a film’s release by opening in a handful of theaters before slowly expanding nationwide, can be an effective way of generating buzz, there are risks. “Room,” a drama about a kidnapped woman who has a child with her abductor, impressed with its $120,000 debut. Its depressing subject matter required a delicate approach, executives say, and A24, the studio behind the film, will gradually increase the number of theaters throughout the fall.

“The best tool to sell the movie is the movie,” said Heath Shapiro, the company’s head of distribution. “People speak about it in such a special way that we knew word of mouth was going to be the key to making it successful.”

But “Truth” only did modest business, picking up $76,646 on six screens, for a per screen average of $12,774, while “Beasts of No Nation” barely registered when it debuted in 31 theaters and simultaneously on Netflix, earning a meagre $50,699 for a $1,635 per-screen average. Sony Pictures Classics thinks that the hot button story of “Truth,” which revisits the “60 Minutes” investigation of President George W. Bush’s National Guard service, will keep it in the conversation through its wider expansion at the end of the month.

For its part, Netflix insists its pleased with the results on its streaming service, where it says people are watching it in sizable numbers. The theatrical run was done at the behest of director Cary Fukunaga and in order to qualify the picture for Oscars.

The emergence of Netflix and new indie labels like Broad Green and Bleecker Street, which are responsible for the likes of “A Walk in the Woods” and “Pawn Sacrifice,” partly explains this wealth of options for older audiences. In recent years, many studios shuttered their art house operations as they turned their focus to comic book movies and special effects-driven event films. But that left a void that these new players seem determined to fill. Baby boomers still turn up to movie theaters, whereas Millenials, having been weaned on YouTube and on-demand, are more likely to wait for things to pop up on iTunes. In 2014, the share of tickets sold to audiences 40 years old and up hit all time highs, while the percentage of moviegoers between the ages of 18 to 24 fell to its lowest numbers since 2010.

At the same time, these new digital players are not adhering to the same business model. Netflix, Amazon, and their ilk make their money from subscriptions, not ticket sales. They can outbid studios for the rights to a “Beasts of No Nation” and see it flounder in theaters with no impact to their bottom line.

“We’re looking way beyond that first weekend as testament to how successful the film is,” said Karen Barragan, vice president of originals publicity at Netflix. “We will be looking at if people are watching the film in the next six months or the next year. We’re not in it for the short game.”

It may be difficult for those pictures that don’t make much of an initial impression to claw back the attention once another weekend dawns and ushers in a fresh crop of Oscar bait. Some analysts expect that the pileup of prestige fare is only going to intensify. The next two weeks bring the nationwide rollout of “Steve Jobs,” the wide release of the Sandra Bullock political comedy “Our Brand is Crisis,” and the limited debuts of the Bradley Cooper chef comedy “Burnt” and the historical drama “Suffragette.”

Even the strong may not survive.

More Film

  • Li Shaohong

    Li Shaohong Revisits Macao and Chinese War Films

    Fifth generation director Li Shaohong’s career has spanned the entire length of the Chinese film market’s rise, from its days as a state-run industry churning out nothing but social realist films to its current stage of supporting ever more sophisticated and lucrative blockbusters and genre films. The current head of the China Film Directors’ Guild, [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    Johnny Ma on the Dynamics of New Era Film Production in China

    Shanghai-born Canadian filmmaker Johnny Ma says he’d planned to make three films in China before moving on to other things, but the current state of the Chinese industry has “forced his hand” and convinced him to move on early after two. Currently living in Mexico, his next project is actually in TV: a pilot for [...]

  • 'Wonder Woman 1984' Trailer: Gal Gadot

    'Wonder Woman 1984' Trailer: Gal Gadot Returns With Pedro Pascal, Kristen Wiig

    “Wonder Woman 1984” dropped its first trailer on Sunday, with Gal Gadot returning as the titular Amazonian goddess. The film is set, of course, in the 1980s in America, decades after the first film’s events. Kristen Wiig is playing Wonder Woman’s infamous comic-book nemesis Cheetah, while Chris Pine is returning for the sequel. It’s unclear, [...]

  • Over the Sea

    Macao Film Review: 'Over the Sea'

    The beginning is a fairy tale, or a nursery rhyme. A woman nurses her squalling baby in a house by an orchard near the sea. Sunlight slants in through the open windows, the mother hums a lullaby, and then brings her son outside and places him in a cot suspended from the apple-laden branches of [...]

  • CCA Film Nominations

    Critics' Choice: 'The Irishman,' 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' Lead Movie Nominations

    “The Irishman” has picked up the most film nominations for the 35th annual Critics’ Choice Awards. The Martin Scorsese gangster drama goes into the awards show with 14 noms, including best picture, director, acting ensemble as well as best actor (Robert De Niro) and supporting actor (Al Pacino and Joe Pesci), the Critics’ Choice Association [...]

  • Parasite

    'Parasite' Named Best Film of 2019 by L.A. Film Critics Association

    Hollywood’s hometown critics clearly aren’t afraid of subtitles. Members of the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. met Sunday to vote on the year’s best cinema accomplishments. South Korean thriller “Parasite” fared the best, taking not only best picture, but also the group’s director prize for Bong Joon Ho and supporting actor for Song Kang Ho. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content