'The Help' Audience: Just Who Exactly is Going to See It?

2:41 PM PST 08/26/2011 by Pamela McClintock
Dreamworks

With a rare cross-section of audiences, the Tate Taylor directed period pic is becoming one of the most atypical blockbusters since "The Blind Side."

When The Blind Side took off at the domestic box office in November 2009, the movie drew notice for its strength outside the usual top moviegoing hubs. Rather than traditional big-city power theaters in New York and Los Angeles, the film's best grosses came from cinemas in Dallas, Nashville, Sacramento, Calif., and Birmingham, Ala.

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Now comes The Help, which is playing like Blind Side with a twist: Not only is the period race drama bustling in Southern cities including Memphis, Nashville and Dallas, but it's generating notable business in upscale commercial theaters in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. Rare is the film whose top 10 grossing theaters include the Paradiso 16 in East Memphis, Tenn. -- a residential and commercial area -- and the Lincoln Square 13, smack-dab in the middle of New York City.

Why is this happening? Box-office observers say Help's twin appeal owes to the popularity of Kathryn Stockett's best-selling novel (a DreamWorks executive reports seeing groups of women at the ArcLight Sherman Oaks bringing the book to the movie) as well as the film's Southern-themed story and large biracial cast. On Help's first weekend in release, the top three theaters were in Memphis, Jackson, Miss. (where the story is set), and Dallas.

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Jeff Kaufman, senior vp film and marketing at Malco Theaters, which owns the Paradiso 16 (the film's top-grossing theater to date) and the Grandview 17 near Jackson, says the film is playing to both whites and blacks (blacks make up the majority of the population in both cities). "We're experiencing a strong response from all demographics," Kaufman says, adding that more and more men are coming.

Help, among the most racially diverse female ensemble pics ever, tells the story of how Southern white women treated their black maids in the early 1960s. Some black reviewers and organizations have criticized the film for turning an ugly period in U.S. history into an uplifting drama centered around a young white woman and a black maid, but that doesn't appear to be hurting the pic.

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The movie also is fueling renewed interest in the book, which is back on The New York Times best-seller list for the first time since winter. Cody Morrison, an assistant manager and book buyer at Square Books in Oxford, Miss., one of the South's most famous independent bookstores, says sales of The Help have tripled since the movie hit theaters.

By Help's second weekend in release, the theater lineup changed slightly, and the ArcLight Sherman Oaks climbed up the list to become the No. 2 theater nationwide (Memphis remained No. 1), while Lincoln Square came in at No. 5.

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Older women continue to drive Help's early success -- the movie grossed a stellar $71.3 million in its first 10 days -- but almost immediately, more men started to turn out. On the first Friday night, females made up 73 percent of the audience; that stat dropped to 69 percent the subsequent evening.

"If you drop only 23 percent in your second weekend, you have to be playing to a broader audience, both along gender lines and age-wise," says Dave Hollis, Disney's executive vp distribution.

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Hollis says he doesn't have exit data regarding repeat viewing, but he guesses some moviegoers are going more than once, based on the strength of holdover theaters.

No one expects Help to reach the heights of Blind Side, which grossed $256 million domestically and appealed to faith-based audiences as well as sports fans. But the filmmakers are hopeful the Tate Taylor-directed drama will continue to broaden out geographically, particularly as awards season heats up. The movie is an early contender, particularly for its performances.

"You hope the viral, word-of-mouth happens," Hollis says, "like a relay race where the baton is passed."           

 

THE HELP'S TOP 10 THEATERS: Aug. 19-21

  1. Paradiso 16, Memphis, Tenn.
  2. Arclight Sherman Oaks, Sherman Oaks
  3. Thoroughbred 20, Nashville
  4. Grandview 17, Madison/Jackson, Miss.
  5. Lincoln Square 13, New York
  6. Northpark 15, Dallas
  7. Greenway Grand Palace 24, Houston
  8. Arclight Hollywood, Hollywood
  9. Showplace Icon, Chicago
  10. Atlantic Station 16, Atlanta

THE HELP vs. THE BLIND SIDE: How the two unlikely hits compare

Opening-Night Demos

  • The Help: 74% women // 75% older than 25
  • The Blind Side: 60% women // 75% older than 25

CinemaScore

  • The Help: A+
  • The Blind Side: A+

Domestic Gross After two weekends in release

  • The Help: $71.3 million
  • The Blind Side: $110.2 million

Top Grossing Markets: Dallas and Nashville

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