The movies are clawing their way back in theaters, but, so far, not everyone is showing up like they used to.
While certain segments of moviegoers are closer to pre-pandemic levels, older moviegoers and family audiences have been slower to return. That's shrunk already narrow opportunities for non-franchise films to find audiences. Well before the pandemic, superheroes and spectacles were already a bigger and bigger slice of the box-office pie. Right now, they're closer to the whole meal.
David A. Gross, who runs the movie consultancy Franchise Entertainment, estimates that while superhero films are back to about 75% of pre-pandemic levels, adult character-driven genres are down 66% to 75% from normal, and family films are at least than 50% off. That can naturally be attributed to COVID-19 concerns. Older ticket buyers are more likely to be cautious about the virus. Vaccines are only just rolling out for those under 12.
But if the trend is more than temporary, it wouldn't be a surprise to those who have long forecast that the theatrical movie — once the most powerful pop-culture juggernaut on the planet — has split into two increasingly separate camps: Blockbuster and boutique.
“It's a little early to make long-term projections. But the trend was already in place where blockbusters were making up a bigger part of the box office. Like other things that were in place, the pandemic accelerated some of those trends,” says Rich Gelfond, chief executive of IMAX. “When people go out, they want something that’s more special. People got used to watching different kinds of content on their couches.”
Hollywood is tracking closely just how many moviegoers it might have lost in a pandemic interim where streaming services made major inroads into homes and exclusive theatrical windows splintered. Bob Chapek, Walt Disney Co. chief executive, said on an earnings call Wednesday that the studio is watching “very, very carefully” how different demographics return to theaters.
“We’re still unsure in terms of how the marketplace is going to react when family films come back with a theatrical first window," said Chapek, whose studio will later this month release the animated “Encanto” first in theaters for 30 days. Change in consumer behavior, Chapek said “will be more permanent” than the virus.
Lately, younger and often male audiences are driving the top box-office performers — films like “Venom: Let There Be Carnage," “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings," “Free Guy," “Dune” and “Eternals" have led a theatrical revival. None of those films have performed as they might have pre-COVID-19, but the fall-off is nothing compared to the low turnout for, say, Ridley Scott's “The Last Duel” ($10.5 million in four weeks), a star-led medieval drama from Disney's 20th Century Studios. Edgar Wright's “Last Night in Soho," a stylish thriller, has amassed a modest $8.1 million in two weeks. Last weekend, the Oscar-tipped “Spencer,” starring Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana, opened with $2.1 million.
Even the reasonably strong performance of MGM's James Bond film “No Time to Die” — the 25th film in an almost 60-year-old franchise, with about $670 million worldwide but $144 million domestically — has been softened by lighter turnout of older audiences. On its opening weekend, the studio estimated that 25% of ticket buyers were going for the first time during the pandemic. This week, it debuted on VOD just 31 days after opening.
"If you look at the movies that have been overperforming, generally speaking, over the past many weeks, it’s been those that have skewed to the more youthful demographic," says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Comscore. "I think that ‘French Dispatch’ and ‘Dune’ show that maybe over time and with the right movies, more mature moviegoers are saying, ‘OK, I’m going to take the plunge.'"
Morgan Stanley, in a largely optimistic survey of the industry's future, recently predicted that some occasional moviegoers (who account for roughly half of the box office) aren't coming back to theaters, and will ultimately only reach 60% of pre-pandemic levels.
“We’re on our way but we’re not there yet. We see the avid moviegoers returning but those my age — 50s and older — are a little more reluctant. They’re not going back as quickly,” says Jeff Goldstein, distribution chief for Warner Bros. “I was hoping that by this Christmas we’d be 90% but I think we’re going to be 75%. I’m hoping by next summer we’re going to be 90% but I’m not sure. It’s unknowable. Will there be another surge?”
Meanwhile, the one thing that is working: Event movies on large-format screens. If the pandemic has made movie watchers more accustomed to staying home, or waiting until a movie lands on a streaming platform or video-on-demand, it has only enhanced the appeal of massive, rumbling theaters. IMAX recorded its best October ever with $118 million in ticket sales.
“We're really firing on all cylinders,” said Gelfond. “There may be less movies coming to theaters, but for IMAX, the trend is more and more blockbusters. And that’s a very good thing for us.”
But the issue of turnout is a pressing one for every release not based on intellectual property. This is normally a season devoted to Oscar contenders and the most acclaimed movies of the year. This weekend, Focus Features will release Kenneth Branagh's “Belfast,” an Academy Awards frontrunner. Also on the way is “King Richard,” with Will Smith, which Warner Bros. will release simultaneously at home and in theaters, and Ridley Scott's “House of Gucci,” with Lady Gaga and Adam Driver. Looming in December is Steven Spielberg's “West Side Story.”
The Oscar race will play out against this backdrop of arthouse struggle. How much audiences come out for these films and others might be more closely followed than their awards chances.
“I don’t think it’s changed for good. I think that the audiences are still there. The audiences have not disappeared,” says Frank Rodriguez, distribution head for Searchlight. “What they’ve done is they’ve kind of altered their moviegoing choices a bit.”
Searchlight's “French Dispatch” has given the specialty business a lift in recent weeks at theaters like the Moxie Cinema, a non-profit two-screen in Springfield, Missouri — even if the film's take of $8.4 million in three weeks pales in comparison to the $60 million Anderson's “Grand Budapest Hotel” generated domestically in 2014.
“Things are looking a lot better Monday morning than they did even three days ago,” said Mike Stevens, executive director of the Moxie. “But that’s kind of been the way it’s been going. Each week seems to bring a new wrinkle or a new variation or hope or despair.”
Over the past few weeks and months, he's seen older audiences trickle back, one by one.
“They’re stepping back but not all at the same time. Some of them came back seven months ago. Some are coming to their first movie in almost two years,” said Stevens. “It doesn’t seem to be all the same thing. Even within the couples. We’ll have a wife come and the husband is staying at home or vice versa.”