It must be back-to-school time already because the kids have apparently cleared out of the multiplex. This was a weekend for grown-ups -- as Disney discovered, thanks to the underperforming family movie "Pete's Dragon."
Then again, we're talking about grown-ups of varying degrees of maturity -- as evidenced by the successes of Seth Rogen's raunchy-humored "Sausage Party" and Meryl Streep's more upscale "Florence Foster Jenkins," as well as the failure of "Pete's Dragon" to draw nostalgia-minded adults.
Going into the weekend, the more pessimistic pundits predicted the R-rated "Sausage Party" would gross as little as $20 million; after all, adult animation has a poor box office track record, and Rogen's movies have been hit-or-miss lately. Yet "Sausage" outdistanced even the most optimistic projections to debut with an estimated $33.6 million. It landed in second place, behind the plummeting "Suicide Squad" (which fell 67 percent from last week's record-smashing premiere to an estimated $43.8 million).
"Pete's Dragon," Disney's remake of its 1977 hybrid live-action/animated musical, was expected to open in second place with as much as $35 million. (It's playing on 3,702 screens, 599 more than "Sausage.") Instead, it was third, with a meager $21.5 million. Clearly, family audiences failed to show up, but grown-ups old enough to remember the original didn't come either.
How did "Sausage" get such overstuffed sales, while "Dragon" failed to catch fire? Here are eight possible lessons from this weekend's results about how to draw older audiences, and how not to.
1. There Haven't Been Enough R-rated Comedies Lately
Yeah, "Bad Moms" opened just three weeks ago, and it's still doing well (it came in fifth this weekend, with an estimated $11.5 million). Otherwise, we haven't seen one since Rogen's flop "Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising" three months ago. In fact, there's been only a handful of wide-release R-rated movies all year. Apparently, there's room in the marketplace for more than one adult comedy at a time, especially since "Bad Moms" has more obvious appeal to women, while "Sausage Party" -- um, look at the title.
2. Audiences Ran From "Suicide Squad"
Where else were the disappointed fanboys going to go this weekend? Not to "Pete's Dragon" or "Florence Foster Jenkins," that's for sure.
3. Seth Rogen Does Well When He Calls In His Pals
Yeah, "Neighbors 2" was a bust; maybe it would have done better if Rogen (who co-wrote and co-produced that film, as well as "Sausage Party") called in some favors from the pals who helped make such past Rogen projects as "Superbad" and "This Is the End" into hits. "Sausage" only cost a reported $19 million to make, so the all-star cast he rounded up -- frequent colleagues like James Franco, Jonah Hill, Bill Hader, Michael Cera, Paul Rudd, Danny McBride, and Craig Robinson, as well as Kristen Wiig, Edward Norton, and Salma Hayek -- must have participated for love, not money.
4. Marketing Matters
"Sausage" scored with its trailers, especially red-band clips that made it clear the movie was not for kids. It also did well on social media. "Jenkins" had very little social media presence, but then, it was going for an even older crowd that doesn't spend as much time on Facebook.
But marketing for "Pete's Dragon" seemed nearly invisible. This wasn't "Finding Dory" or "The Jungle Book" -- movies that cost upwards of $100 million to make and similar amounts to advertise. "Dragon" cost just a reported $65 million, and if the marketing budget matched (as it usually does), then it appears Disney didn't lavish the kind of attention it usually does on getting the word out.
5. Streep Owns August
Not the way Will Smith used to own July, but she's done well with her older-viewer-targeted movies in recent Augusts, including "Julie & Julia," "Hope Springs," and "Ricki and the Flash." Whoever markets her films seems to grasp that, by this time of the summer, the blockbuster crowds have cleared out, and older fans of classier movies are ready to return, having been ignored by Hollywood for the last several months.
6. Reviews matter
Older audiences still care, at least a little, what critics think. Their approval of a Streep movie is almost a given, but they also surprised many by raving about Rogen's lowbrow food fight as well. "Sausage" earned an 82 percent fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, not far below the 86 percent for "Jenkins" and "Pete's Dragon."
Among actual ticketbuyers, word-of-mouth more or less matched the reviews, with "Sausage" picking up a B grade at CinemaScore, "Jenkins" earning an A-, and "Dragon" scoring an A.
7.Not Every Old Title Sparks Nostalgia
Then again, even the greatest reviews and word-of-mouth can't draw viewers to films they're just not interested in. "Pete's Dragon" was never the most obvious choice for a remake, anyway.
The 1977 feature wasn't one of the more beloved Disney classics of the sort the studio has been remaking lately as live-action features, from "Alice in Wonderland" to "Cinderella" to "The Jungle Book." The things about it that people did like -- the songs, the surreal blend of live-action actors and an obviously cartoon dragon -- didn't really survive into the remake. So viewers over 35 -- those old enough to remember the original film -- weren't drawn to the remake, and according to Disney polling, they made up just 27 percent of the audience.
8. Timing Matters
True, it's been six weeks since the last major family film, "The Secret Life of Pets." But kids have had more than enough talking/magical animal movies to choose from this summer, and they appear to be burned out -- as the failure last week of "Nine Lives" suggested.
Maybe "Dragon" could have succeeded earlier in the summer, or even before the summer.
Or maybe Disney realized the film was not a draw for either critter-loving kids or adult fans of the original film, and the distributor decided it had little to lose by dumping the movie into theaters during the dog days.