What does it mean when an important, intelligent film like Lincoln, in its sixth week of major release last weekend, came in number three at the domestic box office, beating both Skyfall and the the last installment of the Twilight Saga this busy holiday season?
The answers are positive and encouraging.
The indicators of a cultural shift were like a scene from a Spielberg movie itself that first opening weekend in mid-November. The parking lot of the multiplex theater about 25 miles from Los Angeles -- a suburb which could have been anywhere in America -- was abnormally packed.
"Great," my date said sarcastically, "we're being stampeded by the Twilight crowd." The last installment of the popular franchise, Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2 opened the same November 16th weekend as Lincoln.
We made it through the throngs of movie goers and an 18-year-old theater employee ushered us into a long line. "You should have purchased tickets in advance," he warned, "might be some seats available if you don't mind sitting up front."
"Wait," I said, "we're here for Lincoln, not Twilight."
"That's right. This is the Lincoln line. Crazy, isn't it? The guy on the five dollar bill is hot all over again."
Whoa! I looked around and it was like one of those photos where you suddenly realize something is off -- there were just as many adults from Gen Xers to baby boomers as there were tweens and 20-somethings -- each headed to their own cinematic destination.
Spielberg, a man of great talent, is also a man of great courage. He proved that popular and quality can be one. Lincoln has grossed more than $107 million domestically -- and is still going strong.
As a writer and a marketer, I have long believed there is an insatiable hunger for great storytelling -- both fiction and nonfiction. It is what makes us human; the desire to have our world open to greater ideas and the details of unvarnished truths of the history we think we know. If you feed the public mediocrity, it is what they will accept because it is all that is being offered, but if you give them excellence, they will rise up and embrace it.
Spielberg did what great leaders do: He followed his gut. He also honored the podium he has earned to leave another legacy. His actions are that of an earnest man in his 30's instead of a man in his later 60's. One gets a sense he is just warming up -- how exciting. He is timeless, pushing at what can be conquered. He is a wonderful contradiction, utilizing 21st century technology to shed new light on rare threads of history.
It is elegantly apparent that Spielberg respects his audience and they know it.
When I first moved to Los Angeles in the 1980's I was a young journalist and worked as a writer and publicist in the marketing departments of movie studios. Great lessons about marketing and sales were learned. Many of those lessons still ring true across almost all industries. There is a great leap between the public's awareness and the "want-to-see factor." People can be aware of a movie or a product, but will they take action? Will they actually make it a priority, purchase tickets? Do they have a sense of urgency?
Of course, the youthful movie-goer continues to hold great value for the studios, but the adult movie-goers' have become a potent bunch -- especially the Gen-Xers through baby-boomer demographic -- now the new 20-somethings. They are young-at-heart - interested in a myriad of offerings from Lincoln to The Hobbit to Skyfall to dramas and comedies.
What's fascinating about Lincoln is how many people intend to see it more than once in the theater because it is so layered. That is rare -- a ritual teenagers and young adults enjoy -- hence, its value.
Spielberg has almost always managed to turn movie going into an event. And now, he has made it cool to care about history, ask provocative questions and be ready to take on the world more than three decades past puberty and beyond.