Box Office: With 'Downton Abbey,' Baby Boomers Flex Their Muscles at the Multiplex

Downton Abbey Still 9 - Publicity - H 2019
Jaap Buitendijk/Focus Features

The big-screen version of the TV show’s flush $31 million start runs counter to the Hollywood myth that older moviegoers don't turn out on opening weekend.

Over much of the past decade, Baby Boomers have been more bust than boom when it comes to moviegoing as Hollywood studios shy away from adult dramas in order to stage splashy spectacles designed to offer what the small screen can't.

But the consequences of ignoring this demo was apparent over the Sept. 20-22 weekend when Downton Abbey topped the chart with a flush debut of $31 million, royally beating Brad Pitt's new space thriller Ad Astra ($19.2 million) and the last installment in Sylvester Stallone's Rambo franchise ($19 million).

More than half of Downton's audience was over 45 — including a whopping 52 percent who were 55 and older, i.e., Boomers, per Comscore. Heading into the weekend, the continuation of the hit British TV series was expected to take in $18 million to $20 million, at most.

"In general, we probably don’t make enough movies for older moviegoers. We should look at movies for all demos and all age groups, versus the easiest way to get people in," says distribution chief Lisa Bunnell of Focus Features, which is releasing the film in the U.S.

The movie's performance upended the myth that older adults don't turn out on opening weekend.

Downton Abbey scored the best opening in the history of Focus, and could ultimately become the specialty distributor's top grossing title of all time, not adjusted for inflation. It also bested the opening of any title released by rival Fox Searchlight. Generally, the two companies roll out their adult-skewing titles slowly; Downton launched nationwide in a whopping 3,089 screens.

"The idea that 'mature' audiences don't like to go to the movies is completely untrue. They grew up going to the theater. But they have to have a compelling reason to go," says box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian of Comscore.

According to a new Comscore study, the percentage of moviegoers who are 55 and older has dropped noticeably from 11 percent in 2002 to 6 percent this year.

It's no surprise that Downton Abbey clicked best with Boomers; the median age of the show, which ran on Masterpiece Theater in the U.S. for six seasons, was 60 to 63, according to PBS. The big surprise, again, is the degree to which they showed up.

Rambo: Last Blood and Ad Astra were likewise fueled by an older demo. Nearly half of Rambo's audience was 45 and older, while 73 percent of Ad Astra's was over 25, per ComScore. Both, however, paled in comparison to Downton when it came to the 55-plus demo (or 9 and 7 percent, respectively).

"There’s this idea in Hollywood that in Hollywood everything is youth oriented. The fall has always been more for adults, but this was a very unique weekend to have three films play to an audience predominately over 25," says Dergarabedian.

The combined strength of the three movies helped to reduce the year-over-year revenue deficit at the domestic box office by more than half a percentage point, from 6 to 5.2 percent.

Downton Abbey's opening is likely the best ever in recent years for a film skewing as old as it did, and certainly the best of the year to date. In May, the Elton John biopic Rocketman opened to $25.7 million. On its opening weekend, 32 percent of ticket buyers were 45 and older, including 20 percent over 55.

Often, films catering to Boomers, particularly during fall awards season, don't open nationwide initially.

Exceptions include Lee Daniels' The Butler, which debuted to $24.6 million from 2,933 cinemas in 2013, with 48 percent of ticket buyers 55 and older. In 2016, Florence Foster Jenkins, starring Meryl Streep, debuted to $6.6 million from 1,528 theaters, with 47 percent of the audience 55 and older. A year before, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel opened to $8.5 million from 1,573 theaters, with more than 60 percent of ticket buyers over 55.

Downton Abbey's list of top 10 grossing theaters included some unusual locations, such as a theater in Nashville and another in Silicon Valley's Redwood City.

Other accomplishments: The movie posted one of the best showings in recent times for a TV-to-movie adaptation outside of the Mission: Impossible and Star Trek franchises.

Downton Abbey opens more than three years after creator Julian Fellowes' ITV and PBS series ended in 2016 and follows the saga of the high-born Crawley family and their servants in the year 1927 as King George V and Queen Mary prepare to visit. Focus is distributing the film in the U.S., with parent studio Universal handling overseas duties (series producer Carnival Films is owned by NBCUniversal).

Series regulars returning for the movie include Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery, Laura Carmichael, Robert James-Collier, Joanne Froggatt, Sophie McShera, Phyllis Logan and Jim Carter. Michael Engler directed from a script by Fellowes.

Downton Abbey is also serving up nice business overseas, having earned $30.8 million to date from its first 32 markets for an early global haul of $61.8 million against a modest $17 million production budget before marketing. The pic has amassed $15 million so far in the U.K., where it first strutted into theaters last weekend.