Peter Bart: ‘Downton Abbey’s Box Office Refutes Critics’ Dismissal Of Feel-Good Fare

Downton Abbey
'Downton Abbey' Focus Features

With Emmy noise and streamer jokes now behind us, Hollywood’s dwindling movie fraternity is left to ponder the bemusing lessons of Downton Abbey.

First, the numbers: Though Downton is basically structured like an older-skewing streamer movie, its $31 million box office take blew it past a re-cycled Rambo and a Brad Pitt thriller, at three times its budget.

Next, the reviews: In a replay of what’s somewhat reminiscent of the “Green Book Syndrome,” elitist film critics either ignored Downton or disdained it as another “feel good” confection. The New York Times’ two lead critics declined even to acknowledge it, while their second-stringer termed it “weak tea.” As one indie distributor observed: “Some critics clearly have turned against the very filmgoing audience they’re supposed to serve” (he didn’t want to be quoted).

Green Book, of course, was also a “feel good” movie portraying the fealty between a black man and a white man. Its extraordinary box office success (over $300 million worldwide) triggered diatribes from major critics, whose indignation was further stoked when it won the Best Picture Oscar.

For specialty film distributors, whose business declined 45% in the first half of 2019, the tendency of critics to tune out feel-good entertainments represents a serious quandary, as it does for the Academy (remember the short-lived Popular Movie award?) Would films like The Graduate or even Terms of Endearment be Tomato-ed to extinction today because they were commercially accessible?

Apprehensions about this syndrome were expressed to me by Gareth Neame, Downton Abbey‘s executive producer (and grandson of director Ronald Neame) when we met four years ago in London to discuss a Downton film version of the revered TV show. “What audience would a Downton movie aim for?” he asked. “If we hew close to the tone of the series, will the critics assassinate us?”

That is nonetheless the direction Neame chose, with his anticipated results. “The movie is as forced and unnecessary as a curtsy to Meghan Markle,” observed the New York Post. “You might not feel good about liking Downton but you just might anyway,” wrote Vanity Fair. The New York Times donated more space to a turgid Italian art movie and a subtitled documentary about Diego Maradona, the soccer star.

So where are the critics’ heads? Hollywood, says A.O. Scott of the NYT, is “a presold franchised Disney universe which has transformed fandom into mass obedience.”

He has a point, to be sure, but, oddly, the Downton movie that many critics disdained is a Disney-like confection whose equivalent of superheroes represents a deliciously anachronistic aristocracy. Julian Fellowes, its prolific author, manages to wedge 40 plots and 20 characters into a two-hour entertainment, with each plot line destined for a short-hand resolution. Its wittiest dialogue is delivered by Maggie Smith who, at 85, is not looked upon as an emerging comedienne.

What will indie filmmakers learn from the uncanny success of Downton? First, that the underserved 45-and-older audience stands ready to marshal support for a film (some 50% of the
Downton filmgoers were over 45, and some 55% were female).

Further, that in the new media universe, TV content and film tend increasingly to overlap — a Downton can begin as a TV show and also own a movie weekend, while The Irishman from Netflix will be a monthlong theater hit before residing in streamer heaven.

The audience out there is ever-growing; it may just not be the audience that still trusts film critics who seem trapped in the shifting currents of pop culture.

‘Downton Abbey’ Review: The British TV Landmark Hits A High Note As It Goes To Movie Screens

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