Lessons of Huge 'Hangover'

Courtesy Warner Bros.

Box office fights to rebound as youth (finally) returns for raunch.

When asked before the movie opened whether the naughty antics in The Hangover Part II would finally lure young moviegoers back to theaters, one studio exec quipped, "God save the movie business if they don't."

Hollywood can breathe a sigh of relief as the Warner Bros. sequel soared past the $100 million mark in its debut -- a feat no other film has accomplished this year -- and posted a five-day opening cume of $135.2 million during Memorial Day weekend.

Of those rushing out to see the film, 54 percent were under age 25, reversing a trend of recent releases skewing older than Hollywood's core moviegoing audience. Better yet, 41 percent were between the ages of 18 and 24, considered the sweet spot. And despite the R rating, 13 percent were under 18.

Hollywood needed a big hit -- badly. Domestic box office has been running behind last year's levels, though the gap has narrowed, from 20 percent two months ago to about 8 percent following Memorial Day weekend's record haul. One factor: A recent survey says people under 25 are 15 percent less likely to see movies in 2011 than in 2010.

The lesson from Hangover II's success seems to be that studios must persuade younger moviegoers to return to the multiplex on a consistent basis.

On the opening night of any movie, CinemaScore conducts exit polling for distributors. Until Hangover II, much of the data was downright concerning.

Week after week, a majority of the audience for big Hollywood titles was over age 25 -- and, in some cases, well over.

In the case of Thor, a natural play for teen boys, 72 percent of moviegoers were older than 25. Disney's family-oriented Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides fared somewhat better, but 54 percent of the audience was still over 25. Even Fast Five appealed primarily to an older set, with 60 percent over 25.

"The definition of a four-quadrant movie involves two quadrants that have been sorely lacking from the wickets: males and females under the age of 25," says Fox senior vp Chris Aronson.

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Many believe luring young people has become more difficult as ticket prices have risen beyond the means of cash-strapped teens and young adults.

In March 2010, theaters nationwide raised prices, looking to cash in on the 3D boom brought on by Avatar and Alice in Wonderland. By fourth-quarter 2010, just when the box-office slump began, the average ticket cost reached $8 for the first time.

Prices dipped 2 percent in the first quarter to $7.86, but it didn't seem to move the needle. The decreased price was slightly less than the 2010 average price of $7.89 but still more than the average 2009 price of $7.50.

Like teens and young adults, families are vulnerable, and this might be one reason 3D attendance has taken a noticeable dip in recent weeks, setting off alarm bells at studios.

Box-office observers were taken aback when the majority of moviegoers saw Pirates in 2D.

Until now, a distributor could count on collecting 55 percent to 65 percent of a movie's total gross from 3D screens. But only 46 percent of the opening-weekend gross for Pirates came from 3D, giving the pic a softer-than-expected $90.1 million domestic opening.

"These are the most expensive ticket prices, and I think that's where teenagers and families are really challenged," another exec says.

The news wasn't much better for Kung Fu Panda 2, from DreamWorks Animation and Paramount. Only 45 percent of the toon's $68 million opening gross came from 3D.

"Families may be realizing that the value isn't there," one studio exec says. "They're saying, 'Hey, wait a minute, I spent all this money, and my kids don't even like 3D anymore.' "

Overseas, it's the opposite, where the box office is booming for 3D and 2D fare.

But Hollywood is anxious for a domestic turnaround. To do that, it will need fresh, younger blood.

In the wake of Hangover's big debut, studio execs say the trick is to present films that are irresistible to youngsters. Two likely contenders are this summer's Transformers: Dark of the Moon and the last Harry Potter pic.

"Deliver a film they can't afford to miss," one exec says. "Hangover proves that."          

YOUNG VIEWERS: Opening weekend share of attendance under 25

  • Bridesmaids: 23%
  • Thor: 28%
  • Fast Five: 40%
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides: 46%
  • The Hangover Part II: 54%
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