Gravity Soars, Captain Phillips Sails, Grownups Rule!

Tom Hanks joins Sandra Bullock in the adult swim, as the core young audience goes missing

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Unlikely recipe for box-office success: a long-established star gets stranded in a hostile environment. Sandra Bullock, lost in space, led Gravity to a win in its second week with a stratospheric $44.3 million at the North American box office, according to preliminary studio estimates. And Tom Hanks, kidnapped by Somali pirates, summoned $26 million for the true-life adventure Captain Phillips.

Both movies brought old folks — anyone over 35— back to theaters. Now all Hollywood has to do is figure out what happened to its core audience of teenagers and young adults. It’s as if they heard there was a shutdown and thought that meant the theaters were closed.

[UPDATE: According to final weekend figures, issued Monday, Gravity earned $43,2 million, down 2.4% from its Sunday projection; Captain Phillips took in $25.7 million, about 1% below its estimate; and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 garnered $13.8 million, down 3%.]

Bullock, 49, has been a star for nearly two decades (since Speed in 1994); Hanks, 57, for nearly three (Splash, 1984). Together they demonstrated that marquee actors of a certain age can still launch a hit movie if given the right property. Next weekend will provide another veteran star in a solo turn, as Robert Redford, 77 and in movies for more than a half-century, battles the elements alone on a boat in All Is Lost.

Older stars attract older audiences. Captain Phillips, produced for about $55 million and directed by docudrama specialist Paul Greengrass (United 93 and Green Zone, plus two of the Matt Damon Bourne movies), lured a demographic that was 52% male and a lopsided 62% over the age of 35. (Gravity‘s first-weekend customers skewed 54% male, 59% over 35.) The crowd loved Capt. Phil: the film received a sterling “A” rating from the CinemaScore survey of early attendees.

(READ: Separating fact from fiction in Captain Phillips)

Gravity enjoyed an amazingly adhesive “hold.” It dropped just 21% from last weekend’s $55.8 million debut — the smallest non-holiday decline for any movie that opened to more than $55 million. Warner Bros. domestic distribution chief Dan Fellman told The Hollywood Reporter that the picture is playing to younger audiences this weekend and to “consumers who rarely take a trip to the multiplex.” Alfonso Cuarón’s NASA spectacle is also being seen as it should be, in 3-D (82% of this weekend’s audience) or on an IMAX screen ($9 million in a few hundred theaters).

With nearly $125 million in the domestic till after 10 days, and a glowing consensus among critics, Gravity could hit $250 million in North America. And where prestige hits go, Oscar often follows. “The gross is actually more significant than its strong first week result,” writes Tom Brueggemann, the stats sage at the Thompson on Hollywood blog. “It shows that the film is becoming an event right at the moment when in particular Academy members are beginning to focus on their upcoming choices (and encouraging many to see it now rather than wait for 2-D screeners).”

(READ: Corliss’s review of Gravity)

The movie moguls’ euphoria for Gravity and Captain Phillips — and for the continued strength of the kids’ cartoon Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2, which neared $80 million in its third week in domestic theaters — must be tempered with the realization that nobody’s going to any other movies. On this same week last year, five movies (including Taken 2 in its second week and Argo in its first) earned more than $10 million each; nine films took in at least $4 million. This weekend, only three did.

One was the other new wide release, Robert Rodriguez’s R-rated action film Machete Kills, which showed up D.O.A. at about $3.8 million. Below it in the top 10 were the carcasses of movies — Runner Runner, Rush, Don Jon, Baggage Claim — that have not reached the modest goal of $25 million in their second, third or fourth weeks. They’ve connected neither with adults nor with the missing kids.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Don Jon)

The remake of Carrie, opening this weekend, may entice young audiences back to theaters. And the return of adults to the movies is an encouraging sign. But Hollywood can’t afford to appeal only to grownups. That form of popular culture is Broadway, long known as “the fabulous invalid.” If the American film industry goes that route, it will spend years in economic traction.

Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend’s top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:

1. Gravity, $44.3 million; $123.4 million, second week
2. Captain Phillips, $26 million, first weekend
3. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2, $14.2 million; $78 million, third week
4. Machete Kills, $3.797 million, first weekend
5. Runner Runner, $3.725 million; $14.1 million, second week
6. Prisoners, $3.665 million; $53.6 million, fourth week
7. Insidious Chapter 2, $2.65 million; $78.4 million, fifth week
8. Rush, $2.36 million; $22.2 million, fourth week
9. Don Jon, $2.34 million; $20.1 million, third week
10. Baggage Claim, $2.1 million; $18.3 million, third week