Conventional wisdom says that summer at the multiplex is strictly for kids and teens, that Hollywood relies on youngsters to spend their vacations gorging on popcorn and escapist spectacle while offering little incentive for grown-up moviegoers to get off their living room couches and brave the box office. Yet this year marks at least the second summer in a row that adults have come back to the theater, either for broadly appealing art-house fare ("Moonrise Kingdom") or graphic R-rated mainstream movies. (Not to mention "The Dark Knight Rises," a superhero blockbuster with adult appeal.)

Has Hollywood finally figured out how to bring adults back to the multiplex? Or do these summer spikes mask long-term problems exhibitors have in regaining the allegiance of an adult audience that has largely abandoned them?

This summer, such art-house movies as "Moonrise Kingdom" and "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" have lodged a fair amount of time in the upper reaches of the box office chart, following the example set last summer by "Midnight in Paris." Not that a movie has to be small and precious to draw grown-ups; some mainstream Hollywood movies whose explicit R-rated content means primarily adult audiences have done very well this summer, too ("Ted," "Prometheus," and "Magic Mike"), echoing last summer's string of raunchy, R-rated successes ("The Hangover Part II," "Bridesmaids," "Bad Teacher," "Horrible Bosses"). These hits may not indicate an overlap in taste or anything else other than age, but they prove that summer isn't necessarily just for kids anymore.

There's little indication, however, that Hollywood has responded to these successes with any change in its business strategy. The studios are still geared toward making expensive event movies for young men under 25 (and overseas audiences for whom spectacle translates better than well-written dialogue), to the near exclusion of all other fare aimed at different audiences. True, August will see the release of big-studio dramedy "Hope Springs," with senior-citizen Oscar-winners Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones playing a couple trying to save their marriage, a film that's following the example of last year's smash dramedy "The Help" in a) catering to adults in an otherwise desolate August and b) getting an early jump on awards season. But otherwise, it's pretty much all fireballs and spandex, all the time.

You'd think Hollywood would want to do more to attract adults. According to a 2010 study, people over 50 make up the largest segment of moviegoers, yet they don't go to the movies as often as teens and young adults. There are several reasons for this, issues that the industry is addressing only haphazardly. They include:

  • Ticket Prices. The cost of an evening at the cinema is one of the chief discouraging factors that keeps adults watching movies in their living rooms, especially in this economy. A recent study by PricewaterhouseCoopers claims there is some relief on the horizon, projecting that average movie ticket prices won't spike as sharply over the next few years as they have for the last few. Unfortunately, that relief may be illusory; after all, the study also suggests that the reason average prices rose so sharply over the past few years is the sudden boom in 3D, with its glasses-rental surcharge. That surcharge isn't going away anytime soon, and neither is the fondness among studios and exhibitors for the gimmick. Which means that, if prices drop (or rise less sharply), it won't be because tickets are getting cheaper but because fewer moviegoers will think it's worth it to shell out extra for 3D. The novelty will have worn off. (Or maybe 3D TVs will become more commonplace and make the 3D theatrical experience less special.)

  • Food. Snacks, not ticket sales, is where theaters make most of their profits, and adults don't buy as much popcorn and soda as teens do. A recent Salon article addressing these issues (titled "Does Hollywood Hate Adults?") cites a theater owner who claims teen moviegoers spend $7 per person at the concession stand, compared to just $2 per person for grown-ups. (As for me, I'd like to see a theater where you can buy any snack or drink for just $2.) So there's little incentive for such exhibitors to book fare that will appeal more to adults than to teens.

    Of course, a growing number of theaters are trying to increase adult food spending by offering more sophisticated dining options, including in-seat dining (with restaurant quality meals and table service) and beer and wine (which have the advantage of forcing theaters to ban unruly youngsters under 21 for some screenings). Others have tried adding more heathful snacks, such as fruit juice or granola bars. to the concession menu. Unfortunately, as the National Organization of Theater Owners (NATO) has noted, healthy snacks just don't sell. When we go to the movies, we're conditioned to consume giant tubs of oily popcorn and sugary sodas.

  • The Theatrical Experience. Over the last few years, theaters have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in upgrading their auditoriums with tiered seating, digital projection, and other amenities, in an apparent effort to make your moviegoing experience as comfortable and state-of-the-art as watching a Blu-ray from your sofa at home. One big difference remaining between home and theatrical viewing is the communal experience, which could also use an upgrade, but theaters may not be going about fixing it the right way. In a moviegoing world full of people who talk back at the screen, spill sticky soda on the floor, or bring too-small children into the theater, one of the most irritating annoyances is cell phones. Even people who don't talk on theirs still like to text during the movie, making clicking noises and adding glare to the darkened room. Twice this year, NATO has proposed dealing with texting not by enforcing a ban (don't want to alienate the kids who are the most frequent moviegoers) but by setting aside text-friendly screenings. Fortunately, the Alamo Drafthouse chain, which prides itself on shushing any noisy patrons, is maintaining a similar zero-tolernace policy on texting. A recent post on the chain's blog argues that tolerating rude behavior is a bigger threat to the box office than putting the thumbscrews to texters is. Still, the bigger chains may yet give in, with CEOs of both Regal and IMAX saying they may experiment with text-friendly screenings.

  • Fare Quality. According to my unscientific, informal survey of people who follow me on Twitter and subscribe to my Facebook posts, the thing that would most encourage adults to return to theaters is good movies -- movies that are smart, have compelling stories and interesting characters, and maybe a little bit of heart. Not everything the studios slap with an R rating qualifies (which is why "Magic Mike" flourished and "That's My Boy" didn't). Conversely, some summer blockbusters do qualify (notably, "The Dark Knight Rises," which is brainy enough to appeal to grown-ups as well as spectacle-seeking youngsters). It also helps if there's some visual appeal; "Ted" may be clever and funny, but there's nothing about it that screams "big screen," unlike the meticulously grand visuals of Christopher Nolan's Bat-sequel or the meticulously intimate visuals of Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom." (My respondents say they are content to wait for "Ted" to be available for home viewing, but they're eager to go to theaters to see "Dark Knight Rises," even in IMAX.) So what lesson do you think Hollywood will take from this summer's adult successes? That blockbusters should be brainy as well as brawny? That inexpensive character dramas can pay off handsomely? Hollywood isn't good at making movies like that. Instead, we'll see superhero movies that mistake grimness for depth and R-rated movies that depend on gimmickry like male strippers and talking animals.
categories Movies