The wrestling drama The Iron Claw has quietly grossed $31.5 million domestically at the box office since its Christmas launch, a veritable fortune for an independent film in the post-pandemic age and one of the best showings ever for distributor A24. And it isn’t the only specialty movie doing impressive business these days thanks to a powerful new ally: younger adults.
For years, art house movies relied on the “elderverse,” as one indie executive puts it — i.e., moviegoers over age 35 or 40. But that relationship collapsed during the COVID-19 crisis and has yet to be fully restored. At the same time, the 18-to-34 crowd started snubbing once-surefire genres like superhero fare and began venturing beyond their comfort zone. “Also, people are realizing that streaming is leveling off. There’s less good content to watch at home,” adds Neon distribution chief Elissa Federoff.
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“This is the strongest I can remember seeing this kind of turnout since the early 2000s,” says Lisa Bunnell, president of distribution at Focus Features. More than 40 percent of ticket buyers to the opening weekend of The Holdovers, directed by Alexander Payne and starring Paul Giamatti, were under 35, she says. The film has grossed an impressive $18.8 million to date since its October launch, and is being rereleased in theaters over the Jan. 27-29 weekend after picking up five Oscar nominations, including best picture and best actor (as an example of its success, it has earned more than last year’s best picture contender The Fabelmans, which topped out at $17.3 million domestically).
On the opening weekend of Iron Claw — starring Zac Efron and The Bear’s Jeremy Allen White as the Von Erich brothers of wrestling fame — more than 60 percent of tickets buyers were 35 and under, including a large chunk between ages 18 and 24. The heart-wrenching movie went viral thanks to its cast, which also includes Harris Dickinson, and became a TikTok sensation when people seeing the film rushed to post videos of themselves crying.
A24 is known for homing in on movies that appeal to younger generations. Lady Bird (2017) is another example (and one of its first films was Spring Breakers). Ditto for rival distributor Neon, home of the Oscar winner Parasite. The more traditional specialty distributors, including heavyweights Focus and Searchlight, are also benefiting from the boon as more and more younger adults discover specialized cinema.
On its Dec. 8 opening weekend, Yorgos Lanthimos’ Victorian era-set Poor Things, from Searchlight, saw 70 percent of ticket buyers under 35, followed by 66 percent on the second and 58 percent on the third. It has earned an impressive $21.4 million to date, and boasts 11 Oscar nominations, the most of any film behind Oppenheimer. (Box office observers say it’s not exactly a surprise that Poor Things — a genre-defying film about sexual exploration and female freedom starring Emma Stone — would skew younger.)
Yet even The Zone of Interest, a Holocaust drama (and another A24 title), is drawing a younger audience. “For a movie of this subject to have more than half of the audience be under 35 is extremely noteworthy and encouraging. I think last year’s specialty films — The Fablemans, The Banshees of Inisherin, Tár and Armageddon Time — all played older thematically and were more traditional, whereas some of this year’s movies could play younger while still playing to an older review-driven audience,” notes one specialty insider.
Zone of Interest is likewise competing in the best picture Oscar race and claims a total of five noms. Fellow best picture contender American Fiction, from Amazon, is another film that is playing to both younger and older audiences, similar to Zone of Interest. On its opening weekend, more than 40 percent of ticket buyers were under the age of 34.
The uptick at the specialty box office is noticeable when looking at the subdued domestic grosses of many of the specialty films competing in the last year’s Oscar best picture race: The Banshees of Inisherin ($10.6 million), Tár ($6.8 million), Women Talking ($5.4 million) and Triangle of Sadness ($4.6 million). The big exception of course was A24’s Everything Everywhere All at Once ($77.2 million).
In terms of using the Oscar race to goose box office grosses, American Fiction had been holding back in terms of expanding until after nominations were announced and will jump from 850 theaters to more than 1,500 locations Jan. 27 (it has earned a promising $8.4 million to date). Poor Things will boost its location count from 1,400 to 2,200 cinemas. A24 is still going relatively slow with The Zone of Interest and will up the film’s location count from 82 to just north of 300.
Amazon MGM Studios theatrical distribution chief Kevin Wilson recently handled two specialty movies that have appealed primarily to younger adults, Bottoms and Saltburn, which each grossed roughly $11 million last year in North America, a solid showing for these times. “What’s interesting is we’re starting to see a young cinephile audience that is searching for more unique content,” says Wilson. The exec also credits an up-and-coming new generation of stars, such as Saltburn‘s Jacob Elordi and Barry Keoghan (Elordi also recently starred in another successful specialty title, Priscilla).
Ask Wilson, Federoff, Bunnell or any other distribution chief in the specialty realm, and they’ll tell you that Alamo Drafthouse has helped fuel this trend by providing an enticing and fun environment. (As it happens, Alamo co-founder Tim League was involved in the launch of Tom Quinn’s Neon.) Also, loyalty programs offered by the big circuits are making it less cost prohibitive to go to the movies more frequently, says Federoff.
“Now people can drink and hang out, and be in a social community,” says Federoff. “And it’s partly a nostalgia thing, like coming back to records. People are reclaiming cinema.”
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