Box Office: Senior Citizens Make Clint Eastwood's 'The Mule' a Heartland Hit

Courtesy of Warner Bros.
'The Mule'

The film scored one of the top openings ever for the 88-year-old star and director.

While Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse won the weekend box office race with a debut of $35.4 million thanks to kids and fanboys, Clint Eastwood's The Mule scored a victory of its own by appealing to America's heartland and decidedly older moviegoers.

The Mule, from Warner Bros., opened to $17.2 million to land one of the top starts ever for a film helmed by Eastwood, who remains Hollywood's most prolific director at the age of 88. The Mule is actually the second film he directed this year, following The 15:17 to Paris, which was released in February. And although The Mule didn't come close to equaling the $35 million opening of Sully in 2016 or the $89 million that American Sniper scored in its first weekend of wide release in 2015, it otherwise ranks as Eastwood's best opening since 2000's Space Cowboys, not adjusted for inflation.

Eastwood's longevity in the business paid off as fans that he has acquired over the years turned out to see his latest film, which Nick Schenk (who also wrote Eastwood's Gran Torino) adapted from a New York Times article about a senior citizen who became a drug runner for a Mexican cartel.

Senior ticket buyers were much in evidence, with more than half the film's audience over the age of 35, including 17 percent over the age of 45 and 17 percent over the age of 55 (as a way of comparison, only 3 percent of ticket buyers to Spider-Verse were 55 and older). Moreover, 80 percent of those turning out to see The Mule were 35 and older.

That should give The Mule a key advantage as Hollywood heads into the lucrative Christmas season when a slew of all-audience films, including Mary Poppins Returns and Aquaman, will be competing with each other. The Mule's appeal is more targeted, and older moviegoers, who don't always show up on opening weekend, can sustain a movie in its subsequent weeks.

"Clint's audience may be aging, but they still want to see him on the big screen. And they still want to hear what he has to say, and how he says it," says Jeff Goldstein, distribution chief for Warners.

The film's older audience was reflected in the cities and towns where the movie played best. Generally, the top-grossing theaters for most films on any given weekend are in New York and Los Angeles. That wasn't the case for The Mule. The No. 1 theater was in Scottsdale, Ariz., a haven for retirees. Phoenix was another hot spot for the film, along with theaters in Augusta, Ga., San Antonio and Laguna Nigel, Calif., all of which are close to major retirement communities. The Mule also prospered in such cities as Miami. (While the AMC Burbank 16 and the AMC Century City 15 in Los Angeles made the top 10 list of theaters for the film, they were toward the bottom.)

On a more general scale, The Mule over-indexed in the Midwest and the South by about 4 percent, while slightly under-indexing on the two coasts, according to box office analysts and Warners. 

"We have a movie that is really zooming in on an older audience. There is no other holiday movie like this," says Goldstein.

The Mule, costing roughly $50 million to make before a modest marketing spend, marks the first time Eastwood has appeared onscreen since 2012's Trouble With the Curve, and tells the story of a cantankerous man in his 80s who is broke, alone and facing the foreclosure of his business when he is offered a job that simply requires him to drive.

What he discovers is that he has just signed on as a drug courier for a Mexican cartel. Bradley Cooper, Dianne Wiest, Michael Pena, Andy Garcia, Laurence Fishburne, Alison Eastwood, Taissa Farmiga and Ignacio Serricchio co-star.

"Good adult entertainment has been hard to come by this fall," says box office analyst Jeff Bock. "Enter Clint Eastwood. He still makes people's day."