It’s common knowledge that “Gone Girl” posted big opening weekend numbers and held the top spot in its second weekend. In fact, the trades report that the film’s $38 million opening — and more than $78 million to date — helped boost a movie industry that suffered the worst September in six years. The weekend “Gone Girl opened,” box office revenue was up more than 19% year over year.
That’s all fantastic. But what’s really fascinating is why “Gone Girl” narrowly beat out pure horror entry “Anabelle” ($37.2 million), annihilated Nicholas Cage rapture thriller “Left Behind” ($6.9 million), and in weekend two bested “Dracula Untold” ($23.5 million) with an impressive $26.8 million. I propose the reason behind the “Gone Girl’s” rapid success can be summed up in just two words: emotional layers.
Far from a pure genre play, “Gone Girl” is a heady concoction of emotional layers. It combines pitch dark themes with cunning, surprise, biting humor, and complex characters. Audiences don’t know whether to laugh uncomfortably, scream uncontrollably, grip their seats anxiously or avert their eyes. I suspect that at some point in the movie, most do all of the above. But I believe it’s exactly this multi-layered, emotionally cathartic entertainment experience that’s packing theater seats even as I write this. For the price of admission, tap into a full spectrum of human emotion, from fear and loathing to laughter and cheering. Sounds like a real bargain. With current headlines dominated by Ebola scares and ISIS threats, don’t we all deserve to blow off some steam at the movies?
Don’t just take my word for it. Prior to the release of “Gone Girl,” we surveyed over 450 people on their preferences in the thriller, crime, and science fiction genres. The results suggest that the “Gone Girl” style of emotionally layered, genre blending entertainment is right on target and right on time, especially for Millennials and Gen Xers. An overwhelming majority of adults 18-49 (88%) agree that they “really enjoy a mix of dark themes and stories with lighter moments and humor.” What’s more, people 18-49 show a much stronger preference for “heroes who have a dark side” (81% agreed) when compared to the 50+ crowd (61% agreed). People want a mix of light and dark elements and emotionally complex heroes. So it’s no wonder a sharp-witted thriller that keeps viewers guessing about who the hero even is can squeak by a pure horror entry, pummel a biblical rapture story, and edge out an iconic horror origin story.
The power of emotional layers doesn’t end with “Gone Girl.” Witness the small-screen success of FX’s American Horror Story anthology, arguably the pinnacle of campy thrills. The day after American Horror Story: Freak Show premiered, Nielsen overnights had the popular series drawing 6.13 million viewers, a 3.1 rating for adults 18-49, and a median age of 33. Live+3 ratings brought total viewers to 10 million, setting a network record! With such strong — and young — cable ratings, I’d say FX also has a bead on current tastes.
In fact, “Gone Girl,” “American Horror Story,” and hits like A&E’s “Bates Motel” or NBC’s “Hannibal” are part of a bigger entertainment trend we’ve identified as “Shadow Play.” In today’s entertainment environment, pure horror is great. Virtuous heroes are fine. But the makers of these shows know unexpected twists that add lightness to familiar dark tropes are even more engaging. As we head into 2015, I expect thrills with a wink and a laugh will continue to gain an edge as more and more entertainment audiences are drawn to the emotionally layered and playfully macabre.
Q: Think about your preferences when watching genres like thrillers, crime, and science fiction. How much do you agree or disagree with the following statements?