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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.”

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.

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