Boomer bulge brings rich but untilled field

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On the face of it, Hollywood is getting more mature. This year's Academy Awards race for best actress includes three performers -- Helen Mirren, Judi Dench and Meryl Streep -- at the top of their game. Refusing to rest on his laurels, Peter O'Toole is back with "Venus," which brought him his eighth best actor nomination. And at 76, Clint Eastwood directed not one but two of the best-received films of 2006.

Recognizing such developments, AARP: The Magazine, the monthly publication of the organization previously known as the American Association of Retired Persons, handed out its sixth annual Movies for Grownups Awards during a dinner Tuesday night at the Bel-Air Hotel. Although Martin Sheen, who co-hosted with Kathy Bates, joked of the awards, "I thought it was one of those paid movie channels at the Holiday Inn," the trophies went to films that featured the work of older filmmakers as well as movies that spoke to adult audiences.

Mirren ("The Queen") and Donald Sutherland ("Aurora Borealis") were hailed as best actress and actor over 50. The prize for best director over 50 went to Eastwood for "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letters From Iwo Jima," and the prize for best screenwriter over 50 went to William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis for "Flags." The program concluded with a Lifetime Achievement Award presented to Alan Arkin, who is Oscar-nominated for his supporting role in "Little Miss Sunshine."

The awards weren't just reserved for movies about senior citizens, though. "Lassie" was named "best movie for grownups who refuse to grow up," and Lassie, with a decorous bark, accepted along with director Charles Sturridge. "Akeelah and the Bee," the tale of a young girl from South Central Los Angeles determined to win the National Spelling Bee that stars newcomer Keke Palmer alongside screen veterans Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett, was named "best intergenerational movie."

The evening struck an upbeat note: "We are becoming an economic power, which is fantastic," Mirren said in her videotaped acceptance. But it's not clear that Hollywood has gotten the message.

According to the MPAA, in 2005, the number of moviegoers older than 50 actually decreased 1.5%. (The MPAA will release its 2006 figures soon.) And that probably says more about the movies Hollywood makes than the baby boomers themselves.

For as the boomers' numbers grow as a percentage of the overall population, their share of the market should be growing as well -- if only Hollywood weren't spending most of its time chasing after teens.

Consider this: As television took hold in the '50s, the World War II generation shifted away from the movie palace to the TV set. But boomers grew up with TV -- for them, it wasn't a novelty -- and compared with the limited TV offerings of the '60s, the movies that burst forth in the late '60s and early '70s were a lot more compelling than anything the tube offered.

Although many boomers have fallen away from the moviegoing habits of their rebellious youth, Hollywood could win them back if it tried. It still would have to compete with DVDs and widescreen TVs, but at least the film industry doesn't have to battle video games for the attention of older audiences. With their child-rearing years behind them, the boomers now have the time and, in many cases, the disposable income to return to the multiplex. And, like teens, many of them also are looking to get out of the house.

While the AARP's awards are a reminder that movies that speak to the over-50 set can be both critical and commercial hits, it also sends up a warning: If Hollywood is serious about planning for its future, it ignores the boomers at its own risk.
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