The ‘It’ factor: It’s scary to think where Hollywood would be without horror and its pipeline to new, younger audiences
Horror movies are cheap, make money, and bring people into the theater.
Though it remains to be seen if audiences will find It Chapter Two to be scary, it’s already frightened vast swathes of Hollywood to death.
The Warner Bros./New Line Cinema movie opened Friday entirely unopposed by rival studios hyperaware of its potential multiplex-eating, ticket-selling might — the original grossed $700 million worldwide — and the sequel is crushing it with advance sales.
In fact, the It movies have achieved the wide-berth box office status of superhero movies, which in a way is appropriate, since horror is one of the only genres to survive and even thrive in this era of Marvel-driven blockbuster domination.
Horror movies surpassed $1 billion at the box office for the first time in 2017 (quadruple the total from 2014), and have continued to show good box-office traction as other genres have slipped. Comedies accounted for only 8% of box office revenue last year, a historic low.
The appeal of horror to budget-conscious Hollywood is in some ways obvious — horror movies are usually cheap to make, and can yield enormous payout (Annabelle: Creation cost $15 million to make, and made $300 million worldwide).
Still, they are more popular now than ever, raising a question: Why, like Freddy and Jason, are horror movies so diabolically resilient? The search for answers led me, like the young lady in Us, down a rabbit hole of statistics that point to horror movies as a habit-forming product that is playing a vital role in Hollywood’s effort to find new audiences and keep them in theaters.
Surveys by consumer polling and data analytics firms CivicScience and Movio have variations in methods and samples, but they generally agree that the horror audience is unusually loyal, active, and much younger and more diverse, than, say, the audience for the latest blockbuster.
This is crucial for Hollywood, which can view horror movies as its most reliable pipeline to new, developing/younger audiences — Movio reports that the Generation Z/millennial portion of the modern (circa 2016-17) horror audience is 62%. For a superhero blockbuster, that younger audience share is only 37%. Obviously, this number is affected by the fact that more people in general go to see the newest superhero movie, but you can also argue that, seen in that light, Marvel is the mom jeans of the multiplex.
So it makes sense that 25% of horror fans live with their parents, compared to 15% of those seeing general-audience pictures. (They’re also more likely to make less than $50,000.) Wait — before you start with the snarky jokes, you should know that horror fans are more likely than non-fans to say they are passionate about books.
That’s certainly good news for producers of Stephen King adaptations, and perhaps explains why his books so often become films. Besides It Chapter Two, another Pet Sematary and Doctor Sleep are coming this fall.
The better news for Old Line Hollywood — every day fighting new battles with streaming services — is that the young, diverse horror-movie crowd is comparatively enthusiastic about seeing movies in theaters. One-quarter prefer the theaters, while only 17% of general-interest movie-watchers feel the same way. This confirms what most movie fans know from their own experience — it’s fun (especially for younger audiences) to be scared at the movies, even more fun to share those scares with a room full of people, a rite of passage that happily shows no sign of abating.
It also seems to be a lucky break of sorts for Hollywood. The one bright spot in the lackluster summer season has been the surprising turnout by younger moviegoers, the set that turns out in droves for horror, and for mainstream movies like Aladdin. Patrons aged 18-23 comprised an unusually large share of Aladdin’s opening weekend take, numbers that were similar for The Lion King and Toy Story 4. Without them, Hollywood’s summer box office numbers — running 2% behind the previous year — would have been a real horror show.
Here’s another interesting wrinkle — while men dominate the audience for superhero movies, horror movies are a gender-neutral genre, according to Movio (which separates “paranormal” horror from science-fiction horror). The audience for paranormal horror is split right down the middle, 50% male, 50% female.
CivicScience data shows that horror fans actually skew female — with women or girls making up to 60% of the audience. This might account for the reason that horror movies in the modern era — though heavily weighted toward male writers and directors — are so friendly to female protagonists.
Recent examples include Lupita Nyong’o of Jordan Peele’s Us, Samara Weaving of Ready or Not, Florence Pugh of Midsommar, Kaya Scodelario of Crawl, Jessica Rothe of the Happy Death Day movies, and Octavia Spencer in Ma.
In fact, horror has become so female-friendly (and lucrative) that it’s able to attract Oscar winners like Nyong’o, Spencer, and high-status leads like Jessica Chastain for It Chapter Two, though modern horror fans are notoriously suspicious of high-tone horror — Oscar-winning auteurs like Peele notwithstanding.
Movies that critics adore — like It Follows, or The Witch, or this year’s Midsommar, High Life and Climax — tend to be viewed suspiciously by teens who line up enthusiastically for Annabelle: Creation or The Nun.
Audiences want the “It” factor. Psycho clown, psycho doll, psycho sister. So if It Chapter Two kills, it will be no surprise.
Also not a surprise, culled from the data — horror fans are exponentially more likely to believe in ghosts.