‘Downton Abbey’ sequel to films aimed at older audiences

“Downton Abbey: A New Era” (Focus) opens in the US/Canada (two weeks after its initial international dates, UK included). In its first weekend, the second film after the popular TV series will make less than half of what “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” earned in its Thursday premieres. But if the sequel does anything close to that, it’s a positive move for its core audience: older moviegoers, a sector that is struggling.

Back in pre-COVID history (September 2019), “Downton Abbey”, the feature film version of Julian Fellowes’ hit series, which followed a British aristocratic family in the early 20th century, opened for $31 million in the US/Canada. It ended up being under $100 million, just under $200 million worldwide.

This made it, in unadjusted terms, Focus Features’ largest overall domestic title (adjusted for current ticket prices, as both “Brokeback Mountain” and “Coraline” are up). Naturally, a sequel was quickly planned.

However, the normal rules that make green lighting the most successful sequences are less important here. Perhaps the history, target audience and most of all the timing of the green light have argued against the risk taking. These same factors play a role in expectations about how the film will perform.

By the time filming began a little over a year ago, indications had already indicated that her audience might be slower to return to theaters than younger ones. The spring of 2021 saw most theaters reopen, but most of these sponsors were under 35 years old. In general, even when vaccinations were underway, it was not difficult to anticipate that the target audience was initially reluctant to venture into theaters.

“Death on the Nile”

Twentieth Century Studios

A New Era is initially set for a February 2022 release. Amid rumors of alternate gameplay (PVOD direct or Peacock, both viable potential options), the focus stuck to the stage. Meanwhile, the few similar films that have been widely released show the risks involved. West Side Story, which is based mostly on older viewers, failed to register. “Death on the Nile” exceeded expectations – but still achieved less than half of its predecessor, “Murder on the Orient Express” (domestic), and only 40 percent worldwide.

However, its $13 million opening sets the biggest precedent in the reopening era. Is May better than February? In general, the totals go up somewhat. “The Lost City,” at least one more female/ somewhat older title, grossed nearly $100 million (it opened with $30 million, buoyed by star power Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum).

Another reason that is hard to guess is the broader nature of the film. It’s something unusual in that it’s a sequel to a movie taken from a TV show with most of the elements still intact. Television shows, of course, have led to movie franchises (“Star Trek,” which launched its film arm four decades ago, is the biggest hit), but other than that, there are rarely two theatrical films for a television branch. From drama, more.

The earliest recent example, and one with some overlap in terms of interest from more upscale audiences, is the two films Sex in the City after the end of the original HBO series. The first opened to $51 million in 2008 (total $153 million). The start of 2010 was $31 million before it reached $97 million.

Both are fine, but the descent between the first and second was steep after a successful movie. Is this because one satiates the itch, at least to the same degree?

One example is not evidence, but it hints that at the time it was enough for some early fans. If “A New Era” performed the same, it would be open to $18-19 million. But few films now do as well as pre-COVID, so that seems less likely.

"Downton Abbey: A New Era"

“Downton Abbey: A New Era”

Focus Features

Other issues affecting its audience include that, unlike the acclaimed TV show, reviews were lukewarm for the two films. It obviously had little effect on the former (they were favorable, but not glowing). But as the “New Era” declines, will that capture the attention of an audience that resists the transition?

This audience, along with those with children, are used to watching the best recent movies at home via VOD or live broadcasts. No one should assume that most would-be viewers are aware of the chance that this will hit PVOD (as is usual with the Focus release) after three weekends in theaters. But overall, the default thinking from moviegoers is that it should have been around for a very long time, and that this alternative is no less plausible than a movie that has its roots in home viewing.

One seemingly clever move the filmmakers have taken is to place a large part of it in the south of France. Downton Abbey rarely strays from Downton Abbey, so relocating its main characters to a different location has appeal. Perhaps more so as a symbol of stepping away from a close-to-home routine – just as Focus hopes will do with concerned fans.

The range of expectations for the weekend (one with only “men”/A24 competing as a new release, for a younger audience) is greater than usual. Anything +/- $5 million out of $15 million was predicted.

Judging box office success these days requires in part to put scores on a curve, though previous comparisons are still valid. If that comes to $15 million at first, reckon that this is, at least, a step in the right direction to get more people back in theaters.

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