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Even the tiniest change in demographics or a soft showing in certain regions can send the most sanguine Hollywood studio executives scrambling for answers and solutions. There was no preparing, however, for the COVID-19 crisis, which resulted in unprecedented theater closures.
Now, as people begin to resume “normal” activities and the box office attempts to recover, executives face the arduous task of understanding and analyzing a dramatically different landscape of moviegoing habits, according to polls conducted over the past 15 months by top research firm National Research Group and separate exit polls conducted by PostTrak. So far, the box office recovery in the U.S. is being turbocharged by males — especially in the 17-to-34 age group — while women 35 and older are far more reluctant to return to the multiplex. Ditto for moviegoers of both genders over 45. Regionally, attendance on the West Coast — excluding major cities in Southern California like L.A. — is still sluggish. The Northeast and Southeast are far stronger, as are moviegoing hotspots in Texas, Arizona and Utah.
“It’s still very early in the recovery process,” says Paramount domestic distribution chief Chris Aronson. “Where theaters have not been reopened for very long, they have been slow to get up to speed.”
The revival got underway in earnest when Paramount opened A Quiet Place Part II and Disney launched its live-action Cruella, which brought in a strong $26.5 million despite being made simultaneously available via Disney+ Premier Access. The Paramount sequel — which is playing exclusively in theaters before heading to streamer Paramount+ after 45 days — delivered the film and exhibition industries a huge win over Memorial Day weekend by posting a pandemic-era record with a four-day domestic debut of $57.1 million, including $47.5 million for Friday-to-Sunday. The previous biggest three-day opening ($31.6 million) belonged to Godzilla vs. Kong, which debuted in late March when far fewer cinemas were open and those that were had strict capacity restrictions. (Also, the tentpole debuted day-and-date on HBO Max.)
“A Quiet Place II is a huge win for theatrical,” says Aronson. In its second weekend, the film earned another $19.3 million for a domestic tally of $88.4 million. John Krasinski’s sequel may be lagging behind the first Quiet Place — which debuted domestically to $50.2 million in 2018 on its way to grossing $100 million through its second Sunday and $188 million by the end of its cinema run — but not dramatically.
Challenges continue to abound as Hollywood begins to release a relatively steady stream of summer films. More than 25 percent of theaters in North America remain shuttered — many in Canada, according to Comscore. And more than a quarter of consumers in the U.S. still are not comfortable returning to the cinema, according to the recent weekly poll conducted by NRG. (The good news: The latter number has improved dramatically in recent weeks.)
This explains wild swings at the box office, which are likely to continue throughout the summer depending upon product. The razzle-dazzle of Memorial Day weekend did continue to a certain degree over the June 4-6 weekend when New Line’s horror pic The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It placed No. 1 with a better-than-expected $24.1 million domestically. Universal and DreamWorks Animation’s Spirit Untamed debuted to a far more muted $6 million, as Disney’s Cruella kept more families and younger adults occupied with $11 million domestically in its second weekend for a 10-day total of $43.4 million.
The June 3 NRG survey found the overall percentage of those who feel comfortable going to the movies has jumped 14 points since April 1, to 72 percent. That number has been on the rise, even hitting 75 percent in late May before slipping a few points. (In January, that stat was in the lows 40s). “Eager explorers,” defined as those who would go right now, by far are the biggest segment (61 percent), but “social skeptics,” or those still waiting a couple of months before returning to theaters, are on the rise (23 percent) as vaccines increase. “Health holdouts,” those essentially waiting until the pandemic has ended, are at about 16 percent. “I feel very optimistic about what happened over Memorial Day weekend, both from a product view and the fact that as more of the public is vaccinated, moviegoing will continue to be embraced as one of the activities people return to as the world reopens,” says CAA movie marketing strategist Megan Crawford. “If nothing goes awry, the social skeptics will return.”
Males teens by far are the most ready to go buy a ticket (83 percent); teen girls follow at 76 percent. The gender gap continues across all age groups despite the fact that pre-pandemic there was relative gender parity. Roughly 76 percent of those between 17 and 34 say they’d return (79 percent male, 72 percent female).
The July 3 NRG poll shows reluctance among older moviegoers, and more so among females. In the 35-to-44 age bracket, those willing to return to the box office falls to 67 percent (71 percent male, while 63 percent were female) and to 62 percent for those 45 and older (67 percent male, 58 percent female).
“Right now, older women are the most skeptical,” says one top Hollywood marketing exec. “Women over 45 are very important. We don’t want to lose them forever.”
NRG’s Ethan Titelman adds that some moms also have concerns given that children under 12 can’t yet be vaccinated. “One of their major concerns can be taking their kids inside with relatively large groups of people,” he says. That’s not say that family films opening so far haven’t done well, but a big test will be summer tentpoles Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway, The Boss Baby 2: Family Business, Space Jam: A New Legacy and Hotel Transylvania: Transformia.
During A Quiet Place Part II’s opening weekend, moviegoers under 25 were four points ahead of the first A Quiet Place; ditto for males, according to PostTrak. And the sweet spot for both that film and The Conjuring 3 was ages 18-34, according to PostTrak.
Now the challenge will be to woo other demos.
“Clearly with studios banking big on horror — with eight such films between now and Oct. 15 set for wide release — they are expecting that the younger demographic, for whom the genre is like cinematic catnip, to drive revenue along with the typical summer action fare as well,” says Comscore’s Paul Dergarabedian. “The long-term success for movie theaters, however, will depend on attracting all demographics to the big screen. Adult dramas, along with musicals and independent films, will be the key to get the industry on the road back to a marketplace approximating pre-pandemic box office levels.”
Jon M. Chu’s In the Heights (June 11) falls in the musical category Dergarabedian is referring to and will be a key test for older adults, and particularly older females. Event pics like the latest installment in the Fast & Furious franchise, F9 (June 25), and Black Widow (July 9) will be another important marker of broadening the demo pool. “Both will provide an opportunity to bring in the full tentpole audience,” says Titelman.
Paramount has been tweaking its Quiet Place Part II marketing campaign in more liberal West Coast cities that underperformed on opening weekend. Portland was down 14 percent from the norm, followed by Seattle (13 percent) and San Francisco (9 percent). The Bay Area is historically one of the top moviegoing markets in the country. Los Angeles and New York City — the two top markets — were close to normal, while cities where cinemas have been open the longest saw big spikes (Phoenix overindexed by 30 percent, followed by Houston at 24 percent and Dallas at 18 percent). Though Aronson cautions that it’s still too early to draw definitive conclusions, “A Quiet Place Part II was the first big theatrical-only release,” he says. “We need to see more data.”
A version of this story first appeared in the June 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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