The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Older audiences are coming back. But movie theaters need fresh blood.

Austin Butler plays the starring role in "Elvis." (Warner Bros. Pictures)
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Theater owners and studios alike must be heartened by the success of “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Elvis,” two movies that have attracted huge swaths of older moviegoers. But the weak performance of “Lightyear” shows that a one-two punch of inflation and streaming proliferation threatens to knock out the next generation of moviegoers.

“Top Gun” and “Elvis” are both huge draws for older audiences that have mostly avoided returning to theaters post-pandemic: Tom Cruise’s long-awaited legacy sequel attracted an audience that was 55 percent people 35 or older; Baz Luhrmann’s brash retelling of the King’s life filled 61 percent of its seats with those 35 and up.

The pure box office returns are also encouraging. “Top Gun” is an unabashed hit that has crossed a billion dollars at the box office despite being locked out of China, the world’s largest film market. “Elvis’s” $32 million opening weekend is equally impressive — and a little surprising. It’s worth lingering on: Those of us who watch the box office figured “Elvis’s” numbers would be a little lower since older audiences — the movie’s prime target — have been so slow to return to theaters.

But the older audience was there, and perhaps some of them were there because they had been there for “Top Gun: Maverick.” One gets the sense that movie helped break the dam for a certain type of covid-fearful moviegoer. And anecdotally, I heard from more than one “Elvis” attendee that they had been wowed by the movie’s trailer — which they saw waiting for “Top Gun: Maverick” to start. Indeed, exit polling showed that the trailer for the film was the biggest draw for attendees: 22 percent cited the in-theater teaser as their reason for attending — a greater share than those who mentioned TV ads or online trailers.

To put things in a little more context, “Elvis” grossed more in its first week than “West Side Story” took in during its entire run; this is a great sign older audiences are coming back. But that good news is tempered by the striking failure of Disney-Pixar’s “Lightyear.”

First the animated feature came in well under opening-weekend estimates, grossing a little more than $50 million rather than the hoped-for $70 million. Then, in its second weekend, the “Toy Story” spinoff fell off a cliff, declining 65 percent. By way of comparison, the previous installments of the series dropped an average of 45 percent, and all those drops happened off larger openings (with the exception of the original).

“Lightyear’s” disastrous performance thus far is a bit surprising, at least insofar as it felt as though there was a pent-up demand for good kids’ films. Consider that DreamWorks’ animated “The Bad Guys” remains in the box office top 10 despite having been released 10 weeks ago. “Sonic 2” spent 11 weeks in the top 10.

But “Lightyear” looks poised to fall off the charts much quicker. Some have blamed the controversies swirling around the film, from the lesbian mothers we briefly see to the fact that conservative actor Tim Allen was replaced by Chris Evans for no discernible artistic reason. All this, combined with the success of the classically patriotic “Top Gun: Maverick,” suggests the easy narrative that audiences are tired of “wokeness” in their movies.

At the margins, there’s probably some merit to this. But if I were a theater owner, I’d have a much bigger worry: that Disney Plus has trained families to wait for the studio’s movies at home rather than experience them in theaters.

There has been some rumbling about “Lightyear” being the last Pixar film to get a theatrical release following this lackluster performance. But how could it have performed particularly well, given that audiences have gotten used to Pixar films showing up directly on Disney’s streaming service? “Soul,” “Luca” and “Turning Red” all got no proper theatrical release, and other Disney films such as “Encanto” received 30-day runs before showing up on the streamer. Is it any wonder inflation-battered families decide to skip the $100 trip to the theater in favor of watching the movie at home in the very near future?

As a parent, this decision is understandable but heartbreaking. There’s something magical about kids who have spent their lives on inches-wide screens taking in the majesty of a 30-foot projection of their soon-to-be-favorite characters.

And as a lover of movie theaters, this decision is terrifying. Older audiences will only be around so long. If you teach the rising generation that the theatrical experience is completely extraneous, that experience probably won’t be around for the next one.

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