It’s a bizarre world, this (almost, more-or-less, maybe) post-Covid movie landscape. Pieces are falling into place: Production starts have been up for a year, box-office revenue continues to climb, though it’s still a long reach to pre-Covid highs.
But so much is so different, and I don’t mean just the obvious shift toward streaming. Look closely at the Motion Picture Association’s so-called “Theme Report” from two months ago—a statistical survey of the film business, compiled annually—and you can see the outlines of an industry that was leveled by disaster, and is growing back in ways that veteran observers might find unsettling, if not downright grotesque.
Strangest for me is a near-obliteration of the older audience, a trend that finally be easing with the relative success of Downton Abbey: A New Era. Reasons for the wipe-out are clear enough: Those age 60 and above were deemed more vulnerable to coronavirus, so they abandoned theaters when the pandemic hit, and have been very slow to return. Though comprising roughly 24 percent of the general population, according to the Theme report, people 60 and older accounted for just 9 percent of ticket sales in 2021, down from 15 percent in 2018. Put differently, that’s a 40 percent drop in share.
Viewed from yet another angle, those older ticket buyers slashed their per capita purchases by 80 percent, from 2.5 per person in 2018, to .5 per person last year. Among those between ages 2 and 17, purchases fell only by half. So the very young gained box-office weight at the expense of the old.
If you guessed that older viewers are now watching at home, you would be somewhat correct. But, according to the report, the 60+ crowd account for only 14 percent of daily subscription viewing, compared to 39 percent for the similarly sized bloc between ages 25 and 39. Older viewers, a former mainstay of the Oscar circuit, haven’t picked up the streaming habit. Instead, says the report, they’re watching pay TV in outsized numbers—apparently stuck on those repetitive but comforting cable packages of pre-Covid film.
So a generation raised on The Godfather gave up. Meanwhile, a new set of opinion makers—children and child-like adults—moved in.
According to the report, the top 13 movies at the box-office last year, starting with Spider-Man: No Way Home, were all rated PG-13. Granted, that just continues a long-standing blockbuster trend. More telling is the list of most-viewed movie streams in the U. S. Only two, Red Notice and Mitchells vs The Machines, came from Netflix; the rest were on Disney+, led by the top four streamers, Luca, Moana, Raya And The Dragon, and Frozen II.
Streaming, at the high end, has become a babysitting service. Oscar-worthy pictures like CODA or The Power Of The Dog are lost in the stack.
Spider-Man: No Way Home, of course, is an especially weird outcropping in the new landscape. With $573 million in domestic ticket sales at year’s end, it accounted for nearly 13 percent of the year’s total box-office—what would once have been a respectable showing for an entire major studio slate. By contrast, Black Panther, a mega-hit in 2018, contributed less than six percent of industry sales. Grotesque, indeed: Like an irradiated specimen, one picture took over the pumpkin patch.
Ethnic viewing behavior appears largely unchanged by the pandemic: Among most groups, attendance showed similar declines of a little less than two-thirds in 2021 compared to 2018. But Asians turned more sharply away from theaters—their per capita ticket purchases for the period fell 78 percent.
More striking, perhaps, was a sudden rift in viewing behavior between males and females (to use traditional gender categories still cited in the report). In 2021, males accounted for fully 59 percent of ticket sales, females just 41 percent; the balance had been more nearly equal in 2018, when males bought 53 percent of the tickets, females 47 percent.
But while the boys/men went out, the girls/women were watching at home. Daily online subscription viewing last year, says the report, was 54 percent female, 46 percent male. In post-Covid entertainment, there’s a lot of disconnect.
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