Hollywood's hot new target demo? Baby Boomers
05:00 AM, Apr 23, 2013
When it comes to movies, “adult” is no longer a dirty word.
Instead, films that cater to grown-up tastes are becoming a valuable commodity for studios looking to tap into a growing demographic: ticket-buyers age 50 and up who still adhere to the ritual of seeing the latest releases on the big screen rather than streaming via Netflix or renting from services such as Redbox.
For years, teens and twentysomethings fond of 3-D spectacle and comic-book action have topped the film industry’s most-wanted list of customers. But with increasing competition for entertainment dollars from gadgets, video games and online outlets, Hollywood is courting a more reliable group: the 76 million or so Americans born during the Baby Boom years, 1946 to 1964.
A just-released Motion Picture Association of America study reveals that the number of frequent filmgoers (those who attend once a month or more) rose among those age 50 and above, from 7.2 million in 2011 to 7.9 million last year. While the report noted that attendance was up in every demographic category, the increase among older moviegoers “seems more driven by 2012 box-office titles.”
Translation: Studios are catering more to elder tastes. Consider that six of the nine most recent Oscar best-picture nominees, all dealing with mature themes, collected more than $100 million domestically for the first time ever. And, together, the contenders grossed nearly $1 billion.
As movie-industry researcher Catherine Paura told theater operators at CinemaCon in Las Vegas last week, “We have not stopped going to the movies.” However, “Young people because of technology, because of the different ways they can entertain themselves are not as habituated to going to the movies as the older generation.”
Evidence of the graying of the multiplex: Just this month, the old-fashioned Jackie Robinson baseball biopic 42 hit a homer at the box office (with a star-power assist from the casting of 70-year-old Harrison Ford) while its main rival that weekend, the youth-targeted horror spoof Scary Movie 5, struck out.
This weekend offers a similar showdown. In one corner is The Big Wedding, a racy nuptial farce with an A-list guest list packed with Oscar-toting veterans Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon and Robin Williams that is likely to resonate with the senior set. Standing in the way: Those 40-ish kids Dwayne Johnson and Mark Wahlberg in the muscle-bound crime comedy Pain & Gain.
“We are always looking for movies that have a defined audience, and that absolutely includes Boomers,” says Jason Constantine, president of acquisitions and co-productions at Lionsgate, which is releasing The Big Wedding. “Last year, we released Arbitrage, starring Richard Gere, which performed really well to that audience. And, before that, One for the Money and The Lincoln Lawyer, both based on books popular with the older demographic.”
As a result, seasoned performers such as Sarandon, radiant as ever at 66,suddenly find themselves to be in high demand.
“Statistically, Baby Boomers are movie buffs but more discriminating than teen-agers,” says the Academy Award winner for 1995’sDead Man Walking. “The industry is more fueled by economics than imagination. If these films are making money, then there will be more of them.”
For Sarandon, who has already appeared in two films this year the thriller Snitch and the ’60s activist drama The Company You Keep being older has also allowed her to maintain a busy schedule. “Now that my children are grown, I am available to travel and work more often,” she says. “There are certainly fewer romantic lead parts as you get older. But I’ve always thought of myself as a character actor, which has made it easier to keep on working.”
Justin Zackham, the writer and first-time director behind The Big Wedding who coined the now-ubiquitous term “bucket list,” is sort of a pioneer of the senior cinema trend. He used the The Bucket List as the title of his script that was turned into a 2007 sleeper hit for Warner Bros., featuring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as terminal cancer patients. The pair set out to fulfill a wish list of adventures before they “kick the bucket.”
“Older people have a better understanding of what is important,” says Zackham, 42, about his attraction to stories that speak to those in their golden years. “They know what is a waste of time and what is worth doing.”
Part of the reason he said “I do” to The Big Wedding, based on a 2007 Swiss-French comedy about a divorced couple (De Niro and Keaton) who pretend to still be hitched at their son’s wedding, was the responses he heard after The Bucket List came out.
“So many people said, ‘Why not make more movies for us?’ ” Zackham says. “The Big Wedding is sillier, but it is also about love and a modern family. Studios continue to make expensive comic-book and video-game movies, but you don’t have to spend tens of millions of dollars to make something that is real, respectful and bright.”
The most talked-about scene in his glossy romp will likely be the opening when Keaton walks in unannounced at the home she used to share with De Niro’s randy sculptor just as he is engaging in a sexual act in the kitchen with longtime consort Sarandon.
“It was a conscious choice,” Zackham says. “I have close friends who are retired and in their 70s. We talk about everything, including sex. I wanted to show people in their 60s and 70s still having the hots for each other.”
Brothers Harvey and Bob Weinstein have been keen on serving the underfed adult audience ever since they founded Miramax Films in 1979, delivering such Oscar winners as The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love and 2002’s Chicago. And they continue to do so at the Weinstein Co., including recent best-picture recipients The King’s Speech and The Artist.
No surprise that Zackham’s next script titled, One Chance based on the true story of unlikely British reality-show opera sensation Paul Potts is being released by Weinstein at the end of this year.
Even when the company markets a title with multi-generational appeal, such as the Oscar-nominated comedy Silver Linings Playbook with Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and De Niro, it tends to go after the older crowd first.
“They are more apt to see a quality film in a theater,” says Erik Loomis, head of distribution for Weinstein. “We are more patient with how we distribute and allow word of mouth to build. It’s more of a rifle shot than a nuclear blast. Silver Linings Playbook is a good example. When we opened it in November, 48% of the audience was over 45. But when we got into Academy Awards season, that shifted to 45% of the audience being under 35.”
Steven Bruno, who is in charge of marketing for Weinstein, also notes that seniors are more apt to embrace a buzzed-about art-house film early on. “When I visited my mother in Florida,” he says, “we wanted to watch a movie on TV and she had seen every single one. The nice thing about this audience and the age range is that they are perfectly willing to go out on a Friday night. We just have to provide product that fills that need.”
One organization that is benefiting from Hollywood’s focus on the 50-plus moviegoer is the AARP. Suddenly, its 38 million-plus members are being recruited to attend previews in multiple cities.
“When I first started, occasionally big studios would come to us for a one-off screening Secretariat, for instance,” says Meg Grant, the West Coast editor for AARP The Magazine for the past five years. “But that changed with Hope Springs last year. Sony Pictures came to me and said, ‘This movie speaks to your demo. We want to reach your people.’ “
AARP ended up arranging screenings in more than a dozen markets for the marital comedy-drama starring Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones. Now, she says, “We are getting more requests than we can handle. Big studios are coming out of the closet and recognizing the value of this audience.”
She recalls how Summit which distributed the Twilight franchise didn’t want any tie-in with AARP for 2010’s Red, its action thriller about retired CIA agents called back to duty starring Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman and Helen Mirren. “They said, ‘We don’t really see the movie as simply being targeted to seniors.’”
But now that the sequel RED 2 is on its way on July 19, Grant says, “they were very enthusiastic about doing an upfront piece in the magazine and screening for our members.”