Focus Features set a new studio opening record this weekend with “Downton Abbey,” which earned $31 million from just over 3,000 screens, making was supposed to be a neck-and-neck race for the No. 1 spot between “Downton,” “Ad Astra” and “Rambo: Last Blood” an easy victory for Lord Grantham and his family.
Only one other independent production in box office history, Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” released by The Weinstein Company in 2009, has ever had a higher opening weekend.
“Downton Abbey” was of course expected to become a hit, but not this quickly. Analysts projected an $18-20 million opening weekend but a long tail, as older moviegoers who spent years watching “Downton” on PBS went to see the film over the coming weeks. But it saw a higher-than-expected turnout not only from boomers but also from younger demographics, outdoing projections — and both “Ad Astra” and “Rambo” — by more than $10 million.
Here are the factors that allowed “Downton Abbey” to pull away from the other newcomers this weekend.
1.) The Power of Bingewatching
The “Downton Abbey” movie continuing the story of the Granthams was always going to bring back the devoted fans who helped deliver 9.1 million viewers to PBS for the March 2016 series finale. But that audience has not remained stagnant between then and now.
Since “Downton” ended, all six seasons have been available to stream on Amazon and PBS’ streaming service. While the show’s older core audience saw every episode as appointment Sunday television, streaming allowed the show to bring in younger converts who have taken to bingewatching shows they missed during their initial runs.
We’ve seen the power of streaming to bring in new fans before. The spike in viewers for the final episodes of “Breaking Bad” has been attributed by creator Vince Gilligan to the show’s availability on Netflix, allowing curious audiences to watch all the previous seasons before the final eight episodes aired. In the same way, “Downton Abbey” drew in moviegoers who didn’t obsessively follow the show on “Masterpiece” back in the early 2010s but became fans thanks to the show’s easy accessibility online.
2.) Late September Release
Once a sluggish post-summer period, September has now become a place where studios are finding different ways to achieve box office success. We saw it last week with “Hustlers,” which became the biggest opening ever for STX. Now we see it with Focus and “Downton Abbey.”
“September was just a perfect spot for a film like this,” Focus Features distribution chief Lisa Bunnell told TheWrap. “Its after the summer at a time when people have come back from traveling, the film itself is a change of pace from the blockbusters of the past few months, and it’s sharing theaters with films that are much different, allowing it to stand out.”
That unique appeal of “Downton Abbey” is something that it shares with “Hustlers,” even if the two films are completely different in nearly every other aspect. And both films benefited from the same support from a key demographic.
3.) Strong Turnout From Women
“Hustlers” and “Downton Abbey” both provided solid counter-programming for a release period otherwise defined by dark and gritty, or at least more specifically male-oriented theatrical wide releases. The horrors of “It: Chapter Two” kicked off September, and the macho brutality of “Rambo: Last Blood” shared release space with “Downton” and the father-son science fiction drama of “Ad Astra.” And in just under two weeks theaters will be invaded by Warner Bros.’ “Joker,” a film that has been teased as the most disturbing comic book movie ever.
“Hustlers,” with its blend of sex appeal, thought-provoking drama, and powerful performances from an all-female lead cast, stood out and built strong word-of-mouth that is sending it on its way to a $100 million-plus domestic run. In the same way, “Downton Abbey”appeals to older women looking to arthouse and prestige pictures as an alternative to the louder options on the wide release schedule. As we head into a fall slate with release like “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” and “Zombieland: Double Tap,” “Downton Abbey” will stand out more and more as a wide release that’s far more understated than the rest.
4.) Event Releases Aren’t Just For Four-Quadrant Blockbusters
In an era defined by what feels like a new billion-dollar film from Disney every other month, the term “event release” has become generally used to refer to broad, high concept blockbusters that theoretically have something for every demographic. But the success of a quiet, character-based historical drama like “Downton Abbey” proves that a film doesn’t need four-quadrant appeal to be an event.
“We knew that for the millions of people who saw ‘Downton Abbey’ on TV, seeing it in theaters was going to be an event,” Bunnell said. “So we really played that up in the marketing, treating this as a special event that everyone is invited to share in. Some of our movie theater partners like Arclight and Alamo Drafthouse really understood this and did a great job making special dress-up event screenings to make it more exciting for fans.”
Similar to its success with “BlacKkKlansman” and Warner Bros.’ success last year with “Crazy Rich Asians,” Focus showed a great grasp of the core audience for “Downton Abbey” and came up with a plan that focused on building buzz among that selected group. They should be reaping the rewards of that strategy for weeks to come, even when “Joker” arrives for the comic book movie crowd.