Considering the dozens of box office records that have been broken (and continue to be broken) by THE AVENGERS, it may be tempting to label this Marvel blockbuster the success story of the summer. But, despite all the big numbers these superheroes are racking up, I would argue that the numbers worth talking about are the somewhat smaller but equally impressive crowds showing up for R-rated male stripper movies and explosion-free comfort films. Let’s talk about the adults for a change.
Indeed, it’s hard to get Hollywood to think about anything except the treasured demographics of children, teenage boys, and the all-important 18-25 year-olds. That explains why we have THE AVENGERS, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES all showing up at the local multiplex within a few weeks of one another: Hollywood wants to get those young folks into the theaters and convince them to stay until the first school bell rings in August. But, as the art houses and indie cinemas of America have proven over the past couple months, grown-ups want to go to the movies, too, and they’re looking for something original.
We’ve had the record-breaking per-screen averages of Wes Anderson’s MOONRISE KINGDOM, the holdover power of Richard Linklater’s BERNIE, and the shock success of Fox Searchlight’s THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL (lovingly nicknamed “The British Avengers” for its shimmering, all-star British cast), not to mention that TO ROME WITH LOVE looks like it will carry over Woody Allen’s good fortune from MIDNIGHT IN PARIS and audiences are only just being introduced to BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, which wowed festival crowds from Sundance to Cannes. Add to that this past weekend’s double triumph: Seth MacFarlane’s R-rated raunchfest TED and Steven Soderbergh’s defrocking of Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey, MAGIC MIKE. Adults are going to the movies in droves and making a huge statement by doing so.
Are we witnessing a sea change in moviegoer demographics, or is this all just a fluke? I have a theory that we are seeing what happens when the first generation to come of age during the “blockbuster era” grows up. Before 70’s megahits like JAWS and STAR WARS launched the opening-weekend-focused blockbuster trend, movies were held over at local theaters for weeks at a time. My grandparents grew up in a time where GONE WITH THE WIND would be the only movie playing on the only screen in town for a few months, meaning that you would see a movie once and then find yourself waiting a few weeks before something new came out.
So what happened when that generation got older? Numbers suggest that they continued to see only one or two movies every few months, even though the blockbuster phenomenon meant that there were new films in the theater every week. Hollywood took notice and stopped trying to provide content for older audiences.
But now, moviegoers who were 16 when JAWS came out are now 53 years old, and they’ve been conditioned to expect something new every Friday night. Unfortunately, many of them no longer find killer sharks, caped crusaders, or alien invasions intriguing. So who’s going to give them what they want week after week? If Hollywood is paying attention, they’ll recognize that these little success stories aren’t flukes but signs that a new demographic is there for the taking. The grown-ups are staying in the picture.