‘Five Nights at Freddy’s’ and Taylor Swift Show Gen Z Isn’t Abandoning Theaters | Analysis

Despite a day-and-date release, poor critics’ reviews, and a probable lack of awareness from most moviegoers old enough to remember using Windows 95, Universal’s “Five Nights at Freddy’s” has set a new opening weekend record for its production company Blumhouse with an impressive $80 million opening. Who to thank for its stellar turnout: Gen Z audiences that some exhibitors have been worried aren’t as interested in going out to the movies in 2023.

According to demographic data from Universal, 81% of the video game adaptation’s opening weekend crowd was under 25, with 43% being between the ages of 13-17. Over the past decade, the “Five Nights at Freddy’s” games have built a devoted following among Gen Z gamers that any video game or horror franchise would love to have. And even if the box office returns fall off sharply next weekend, this $20 million production has the makings of another new franchise for Blumhouse.

Combine that with the $150 million domestic run from AMC/Variance’s “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour,” and about 44% of the $522 million grossed in North America this October has come from films that are targeted primarily at Gen Z moviegoers.

Studios and exhibitors have spent a lot of money and research figuring out how to get the generation interested in moviegoing. But perhaps Taylor Swift and Freddy Fazbear demonstrate that movie theaters aren’t on the list of things that Gen Z is “killing,” and that they will sell out auditoriums for movies that feature what they’re interested in.

“Young people rule Hollywood. Their interests have been and always should be the guiding star of what films studios greenlight,” said Exhibitor Relations analyst Jeff Bock. “The under-25 crowd tends to have more discretionary income to spend on these movies, and more often than not they tend to be the difference between a box office hit and a flop.”

Over the past few years, Hollywood has been focused on reviving franchises treasured by Milllennials and Gen Xers. But the studios success in attracting younger demos who were a glimmer in their parents’ eyes when those franchises began has been mixed.

Paramount has had some of the most successful instances of introducing old IP to a new generation, most notably “Top Gun: Maverick,” a sequel to a 1986 film that became a must-see film for all ages. The studio’s recent revival of Wes Craven’s “Scream” has also found a new generation of horror fans, as the series’ sixth installment released earlier this year saw 42% of its opening weekend crowd come from the 18-24 demo.

On the flip side, there are films like Disney/Lucasfilm’s “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” and Warner Bros.’ “The Flash,” two films that flopped against their pandemic-inflated budgets this summer in good part because Gen Z audiences simply weren’t interested.

Young people rule Hollywood. Their interests have been and always should be the guiding star of what films studios greenlight.

Jeff Bock, Exhibitor Relations analyst

On its $55 million opening weekend, “The Flash,” which prominently marketed the return of Michael Keaton as Batman, got just 30% of its audience from the under-25 demo. For the $60 million opening of “Dial of Destiny,” that share was even smaller at around 25%.

Granted, “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour” and “Five Nights at Freddy’s” can afford to be aimed almost solely at Gen Z in a way those films could not. Both of those October hits had reported production budgets of around $20 million, making the break-even bar considerably lower.

But Bock sees the success of these films as well as the niche success of Crunchyroll’s anime films from franchises like “Jujutsu Kaisen” and “Demon Slayer” as a sign of Gen Z’s growing power at the box office.

“I have never heard of most of these anime films, but the fact that Crunchyroll has been able to consistently bring out these younger anime fans shows that there’s a generation of moviegoers just waiting for movies that speak directly to what they like,” he said.

Bock believes that Universal, in particular, has been successful in getting buy-in from younger moviegoers with lower-budget hits like “Cocaine Bear” and Blumhouse’s meme-fueled “M3GAN.” Like “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” these films were made on the cheap and provide the sort of thrills that remind Bock of another bygone era of moviemaking.

“‘M3GAN’ and ‘Cocaine Bear’ may not be great films, but they satisfy the need among Gen Z audiences that reminds of the 80s slasher and exploitation films that were crazy, kooky fun for young moviegoers back then,” he said. “Universal and Blumhouse have done a great job making these silly, scary films at a responsible price and marketing them in a way that fuels organic interest among Gen Z.”

The next step for Hollywood will be to find sustained Gen Z turnout for higher-budgeted films beyond the usual suspects like comic book movies. Those films themselves may need a retooling given how the genre once got strong box office returns even for films with only so-so audience reception, but is seeing success this year with strongly reviewed films like “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” and “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.”

Indeed, “Five Nights at Freddy’s” may be the latest sign that video games are supplanting comic books as the blockbuster IP of choice. Prior to this past weekend, the success of Paramount’s “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” last year and the record-smashing triumph of Universal/Illumination’s “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” this past spring shows that a generation of younger filmmakers understands what makes these iconic game characters appealing to their fans, with both films enjoying strong support across age demos.

As time goes on and Gen Z takes up more of the 18-35 group, theater auditoriums like the sold-out ones seen for “Five Nights at Freddy’s” will become what studios need to aim for to get consistent box office success. And even if some older franchises can make the cross-generation leap, it will likely take new titles and adaptations that older folks won’t recognize — like Warner Bros.’ upcoming spin on “Minecraft” — to keep numbers up.

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