With endless talk about IP and franchises taking over theaters to attract young audiences, something often gets overlooked: the continuing 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 comprised 54% of domestic ticket buyers for the year’s biggest success by far, the $719 million-grossing sequel “Top Gun: Maverick,” along with 57% of the audience for the $151 million-winning biopic “Elvis” and half the turnout for the $67.1 million-earning actioner “The Woman King.” All three were AFI Awards Movie of the Year winners and earned other top nominations, plus a Golden Globe win for “Elvis” star Austin Butler.
Several adult-driven hits released just before the pandemic — like 2019’s 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 its $61.7 million take) — show the potential for artier fare making a comeback and the promise of adult franchises. And no distributor is investing in more of them than Comcast/NBCUniversal specialty division Focus Features.
Expanding on its success with the 2019 big screen adaptation of “Downton Abbey” (78% of domestic tickets were bought by the 35-plus demo in its $194.7 million international gross for Focus/Universal) and 2022’s “Downton Abbey: A New Era” (75% ticket buyers were 35-plus, with the film scoring $92.6 million internationally), the distrib has more in the works. On Mother’s Day they’ll release “Book Club: The Next Chapter,” the sequel to Paramount’s $104.4 million global hit from 2018 with retiree-age stars Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen. This year, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3” will follow Universal’s 2016 sequel (which took in $90.6 million worldwide) and the 2002 IFC Films original (which earned $368.7 million globally). And Robert Eggers’ now-filming “Nosferatu” shows promise as an arty horror franchise.
“It didn’t take us long to relate the [‘Downton’] experience to what we consider our core competency, which is auteur filmmakers,” says Focus Features chairman Peter Kujawski. “It’s about finding ways to offer audiences that sense of a warm embrace of the familiar while still giving them something new each time. With ‘Downton,’ where there’s a deep relationship audiences have to this world and these characters, we added new layers, like introducing the king and queen and a trip to France.”
The success of adult franchises may help specialty distribs support award-season triumphs like “Tár,” which Kujawski expects will make substantially more than its $5.6 million domestic gross when it’s released overseas this year. “We view it like most studios or independent distributors do these days — everyone is taking some sort of portfolio approach to [the movies they’re making],” he says.
And while no one is expecting McDonald’s Happy Meal tie-ins, there are opportunities for merchandising and other endeavors. An exhibit of “Downton” sets and memorabilia is now touring the world, and specialty films like “Let the Right One In,” “Fargo,” “Snowpiercer” and “Hanna” found new life and profits as TV series.
Those questioning whether franchises for adults can succeed needn’t look further than Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out” mysteries. After the 2019 original grossed $312.8 million worldwide, Netflix paid a reported $450 million for two more films. Sixty-one percent of the original’s domestic audience was 35-plus, according to Comscore.
“I don’t really consider them sequels,” says Johnson. “Taking a page from the way Agatha Christie wrote her books, I can use the same foundation 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 the cover to present something that audiences want to see, but that can really swing for the fences.”
Does he envision more “Knives Out” films?” “I’ll keep doing them as long as it feels like this,” he says. “Even though I’m going right into the third one, and hopefully I’ll make some other stuff before I continue, if I keep having the creative experience I’ve had on these two I can totally see coming back every few years to make one, for as long as [star] Daniel [Craig] is up for it.”
Franchises for adults arguably have a broader definition than sequels, remakes, reboots or spinoffs featuring familiar characters. Older audiences seek out films by certain auteurs with distinctive styles time and again, from Pedro Almodóvar to Quentin Tarantino. Wes Anderson, who helmed the $45.5 million-grossing comedy “Moonrise Kingdom” for Focus in 2012, returns with another star-filled comedy-drama, “Asteroid City,” on June 16. Focus will also release Ethan Coen’s first solo narrative feature this year. While there are few details about the untitled project, Kujawski says “it will feel like a lot of things Ethan’s done before,” with his brother Joel Coen, “that people have loved a great deal.”
Certain genres could be considered adult franchises in their own right. The musical biopic is one: for 2019’s R-rated Elton John tale “Rocketman,” which earned $98.3 million, 68% of the audience was 35-plus. Results may vary, though. “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” has made $29.4 million globally since its holiday bow.
Other distinctive formulas include ensemble films with older actors like “Book Club,” and the Feb. 3 release “80 for Brady” with Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, Rita Moreno and Sally Field. Rom-coms have been on life support in theaters, but the star power of George Clooney, 61, and Julia Roberts, 55, transcended mixed reviews and took their “Ticket to Paradise” to a $68.2 million gross, with 63% from age 35-plus moviegoers.
Another 2022 hit driven by older audiences was the mystery lit adaptation “Where the Crawdads Sing,” which overcame mostly poor reviews to gross $90.2 million, with 52% of ticket buyers 35 and over. “As with their Gen Z counterparts, it may be star power, plot and, in particular, marketing power that gets this audience heading out to the multiplex,” says Comscore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “Films like ‘Top Gun: Maverick,’ ‘Elvis,’ ‘Where the Crawdads Sing,’ ‘Downton Abbey: A New Era’ and of course ‘Ticket to Paradise’ all had that perfect combination of factors that ignited a spark for more mature moviegoers, particularly this past summer, which saw a strong slate of films aimed at this audience segment doing well 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 1930s, 40s and 50s Hollywood, serial films like ‘Blondie’ and ‘Torchy Blaine’ were franchises,” she says. “They were very popular with older audiences. Even though you would think ‘Tarzan’ and [the family-centered] ‘Andy Hardy’ films would be for kids, older people liked them a lot. People love recurring characters. And now when I go to the movies, I see more old people than young people in theaters. It’s a habit with us to go to the movies, and we want to go back.”