Holiday Box Office: The Battle for the Over-35s
This story first appeared in the Nov. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Christmas isn't for kids anymore, at least not at the cinema. More than ever before, the year-end movie calendar is crammed with titles that will live or die by their ability to lure older audiences.
The aging population is one reason for the shift, but another factor is the expansion of the Academy Awards' best picture category in 2009 to include as many as 10 films. Studios are seizing an opportunity to ride awards buzz to box office, as Warner Bros. did a year ago with the adult drama Argo. "It woke up the sleeping giant," says Phil Contrino, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com.
For much of the past decade, independent distributors have dominated the awards game. In many cases, these specialty films have played in limited runs during the holidays to stay out of the way of big studio titles, waiting until January and beyond to expand substantially. But now the studios are being far more aggressive: More than a dozen adult-skewing titles will compete for screens and eyeballs in December, including Alexander Payne's Nebraska (Paramount), David O. Russell's American Hustle (Sony), John Lee Hancock's Saving Mr. Banks (Disney), Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street (Paramount) and Ben Stiller's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Fox). Add to the mix the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis (CBS Films) and a packed slate from The Weinstein Co. -- Philomena, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and August: Osage County -- and the Christmas buffet table is overflowing (Llewyn Davis will keep a relatively small footprint until later in January). Spike Jonze's Her (Warner Bros.) and Peter Berg's Lone Survivor (Universal) also open in late December but will play in only a few theaters until after the new year. (Jason Reitman's Labor Day now will do only a Dec. 27 qualifying run then open wide Jan. 31.) There's also Relativity's Out of the Furnace, which hits theaters Dec. 6.
"It's going to be incredibly crowded," says Contrino. "Many of these films are competing for that valued upscale-adult crowd who reads tons of reviews and pays attention to the Oscar race."
That doesn't count the more commercial Christmas offerings, two of which -- Paramount's Anchorman: The Legend Continues and Grudge Match, a Warner Bros. comedy starring Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro -- hope to lure the over-35 set Dec. 20 and Dec. 25, respectively. They will compete with the all-audience holiday tentpoles The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which Lionsgate opens Nov. 22; Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, which New Line and MGM unfurl via Warners on Dec. 13 (a year ago, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey somewhat quietly grossed $1 billion worldwide); and Universal's $175 million-plus samurai epic 47 Ronin, starring Keanu Reeves and opening Christmas Day.
By contrast, the only two kids films are Disney's Thanksgiving animated entry Frozen, opening Nov. 27, and Fox's Walking With Dinosaurs, opening Dec. 20. DreamWorks Animation is sitting out this holiday season.
The film business is expecting an especially merry holiday, fueling what could be a record-breaking year for domestic box-office revenue (on track for $11 billion in 2013 versus 2012's record $10.8 billion).
Studio chiefs believe the adult audience can expand during the holidays to accommodate all of the films. "People have the ability to consume multiple movies in a short period of time, and word-of-mouth has a huge impact," says Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore. "When you go back to 2010, you had a lot of very compelling adult entertainment that worked: True Grit, Black Swan, The Fighter and The King's Speech. And in 2009, for example, you had a number of films doing huge commercial business: Avatar, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel and Sherlock Holmes. People are available in a way they aren't otherwise."
Nonetheless, one industry veteran fears the adult films "could eat each other's lunch" and that their success could depend on how well they broaden to younger audiences.
Fox and Disney, for example, are counting respectively on Walter Mitty, a whimsical adventure starring Stiller opposite Kristen Wiig, and Saving Mr. Banks, the tale of the making of Mary Poppins starring Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as bristly British author P.L. Travers, to play to families as well as adults (Walter Mitty is rated PG; Saving Mr. Banks is PG-13). A film that can appeal to multiple generations is a bonus during the holidays.
"We want Walter Mitty to be the movie that everyone can agree on, even 12-year-old kids," says Fox domestic distribution chief Chris Aronson, whose 2008 Christmas film Marley & Me achieved that goal (and a $243 million global haul). Adds Disney executive vp worldwide distribution Dave Hollis: "The box office expands for good movies. Yes, Saving Mr. Banks is an adult option, but there is a sensibility about it that is extraordinarily unique. It is one of only a handful of movies that is available for multigeneration viewing."
Others believe there will be casualties. "To be a contender this season is tough. Something always breaks out, and something doesn't," says Nikki Rocco, president of domestic distribution at Universal. She believes 47 Ronin will stand out because it is the only male-skewing action film.
Dec. 20 is D-Day for the adult offerings. That's when American Hustle and Saving Mr. Banks expand nationwide after opening in New York and Los Angeles a week earlier. Llewyn also makes a major expansion that day. On Dec. 25, Walter Mitty, Grudge Match and Wolf of Wall Street enter the fray, and Mandela expands nationwide.
Indeed, the cinema landscape is so crowded that two high-profile releases -- Sony's George Clooney World War II caper The Monuments Men and Paramount's Jack Ryan reboot -- decided to abandon Christmas Day altogether. Sony said Monuments Men was bumped to Feb. 7 because it isn't finished. Jack Ryan was moved to Jan. 17 to make room for Wolf of Wall Street, which "felt like a movie that will be part of awards season," says Moore, adding that he believes the tale of 1990s financial whiz Jordan Belfort will attract a healthy number of moviegoers in their 20s and 30s. He pegs American Hustle -- Russell's period political-corruption dramedy starring Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper -- as Wolf's closest competitor.
Despite the studios' confidence, Contrino worries about the consequences of crowding the calendar with so many adult titles in hope of Oscar glory. "It's crazy," he says, "and it's just as bad as what happens in the summer when you have one blockbuster opening right after the other."
Contrino probably would approve of the approach Warners domestic distribution chief Dan Fellman is taking with Her, a sci-fi romantic dramedy starring Joaquin Phoenix, Adams and the voice of Scarlett Johansson. Fellman decided to open the film Dec. 18 in New York and Los Angeles but intentionally will hold it back until after the new year -- avoiding the two-week Christmas rush. "My objective," he says, "is to make it hard to see [until January]."