No studio exec in Hollywood likes when theaters put the hopes of a dramatic box office recovery on one of their films, but it’s safe to say that there’s a lot of people on all sides of the film industry praying for some good numbers this weekend for Focus Features’ “Downton Abbey: A New Era.”
“Everybody is going to be watching this film very closely,” Exhibitor Relations analyst Jeff Bock told TheWrap. “It’s going to give us a lot of information about moviegoing interest from a subset of the audience that hasn’t gotten a lot of films that have appealed to them lately.”
After a fall and winter in which films aimed at older moviegoers like “King Richard,” “West Side Story” and “Cry Macho” were left to die on the vine, exhibitors have been looking for any film that might be able to attract a demographic that has been slower to turn out to theaters compared to their younger cohorts. While COVID-19 concerns remain a stubborn hurdle that killed turnout for awards contenders during the Omicron variant surge, a lack of wide release films for the 50-plus crowd since that surge subsided hasn’t helped matters.
But now comes the second “Downton Abbey” film, based on the hit TV series about an aristocratic British family in the 1920s that ran for six seasons on ITV and PBS. When the first “Downton Abbey” film was released by Focus in September 2019, it became the distributor’s highest grossing film ever with $96.8 million domestic and $192.1 million worldwide.
Given how few COVID-era comps there are for “Downton Abbey” and how the pandemic has sandbagged the numbers for the films that have tried to get the attention of older audiences, tracking for this film is very difficult. But Focus is projecting an opening in the low-to-mid teens from 3,815 theaters, while some analysts tell TheWrap the film has a decent chance to get closer to $20 million.
While that would be considerably lower than the $31 million opening of the first “Downton Abbey,” both exhibitors and insiders at Focus have said that “A New Era” doesn’t need to match its predecessor to be considered a success. For Focus, the film has already made $29.5 million overseas, including $12.9 million in the U.K. and Ireland.
While the film’s budget hasn’t been reported and is likely higher than its predecessor’s $13 million price tag since much of the film shot in France as well as England, the cost should still be considerably less than the $70 million spent to produce Focus’ last wide release, “The Northman,” giving it an easier path to profitability.
For theaters, meanwhile, any opening for this film above $12 million would make “Downton Abbey 2” a better result than Disney/Twenieth Century’s “West Side Story,” which floundered during the Omicron-heavy holiday season with a $10.5 million opening and a $38.5 million domestic total. If “Downton” defies projections and tops $20 million, that would be a resounding win for Focus and theaters alike, showing definitive progress in getting seniors back in cinemas.
But while the current pandemic landscape is better than what “West Side Story” faced in the winter, it’s going in the wrong direction. The seven-day average of confirmed cases in the U.S. has risen from around 28,500 at the start of April to over 100,000 now, and the real infection rate is believed to be much higher considering that most people are discovering they’re infected via home tests, most of which are not reported to public health officials. Even worse, hospitalizations have noticeably increased in New York and other states in the northeast U.S., a major target region for “Downton Abbey: A New Era.”
Ironically, Focus had moved the release of this film from mid-March, when COVID rates were bottoming out in the U.S. but surging in the U.K. (and where they are now in decline). The issue underscores just how difficult it is for any studio to time the release of films intended for an age group particularly vulnerable to the virus.