Old People, Old Stars: Hollywood's New Hot Demo Is Saving the Box Office

Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones in "Hope Springs"
Columbia Pictures

Says one studio executive, "It's a big deal to get an AARP cover" as movies from "Hope Springs" to "The Expendables 2" prove that aging stars, plus the population's fastest-growing segment, are the secret weapons at the box office.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 23-Sept. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Midday on Saturday, Aug. 18, the top-grossing theater in the U.S. for The Expendables 2 -- a who's who of 1980s action stars now in their 60s, led by 66-year-old Sylvester Stallone -- was the Cinemark Palace 20 in Boca Raton, Fla., ground zero for affluent retirees. About 245 miles away, Hope Springs, starring Meryl Streep, 63, and Tommy Lee Jones, 65, was the No. 1 film at the Rialto 8 in The Villages, a sprawling retirement community northwest of Orlando that is the country's fastest-growing small town (presumptive GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan stumped there the same day with his 78-year-old mother, Betty Douglas).

After years of fawning over the fanboy, Hollywood is suddenly embracing the boomer, who is turning out to be the most avid moviegoer of all as teenagers and young adults disappear behind video game consoles, computers and iPhones. "It's the next frontier. Younger people have pretty much been milked," says Bill Newcott, entertainment editor at AARP's The Magazine.

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Not even the youth-obsessed studios can ignore the numbers. There are 78 million baby boomers, defined as those born between 1946 and 1964. In 2010 -- thanks in great part to advances in medicine -- 40.3 million were over age 65, making them the fastest-growing segment of the population, according to the U.S. Census. That compares with 30.7 million people between 18 and 24. It's also the segment that most likes to go to the cinema. The MPAA reports that movie attendance across all age groups dipped in 2011 -- save for those 60 and older.

"Our demo has more time, more disposable income, and when they like a movie, they reward it very well," says Newcott. "They give a movie legs, and that's the real value of our audience."

And not just the serious, art house dramas that are often associated with the elderly crowd (the indies long have adored this demo). Aging boomers can drive all kinds of movies to commercial success. The more obvious examples are 2007's The Bucket List, starring Jack Nicholson, 75, and Morgan Freeman, 75, and 2008's Gran Torino, directed by and starring the 82-year-old Clint Eastwood. The less obvious include Mamma Mia!, starring Streep; the action hit Taken, starring Liam Neeson, 60; True Grit, starring Jeff Bridges, 62; and the thriller Safe House, starring 57-year-old Denzel Washington. Even The Bourne Legacy is being fueled by the over-50 set, which made up 33 percent of the film's opening-weekend audience in early August, the largest of any age group by far.

"Boomers, older and younger, grew up when moviegoing was the cool form of entertainment," says one studio chief. "They have the lifetime habit and enjoyment of going to theaters, and it is still the 'date night' activity. And now they have the time to do it, either as empty nesters or, for many, retirees. They also have the money to spend. So, yes, it's a very important audience, albeit a segment."

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For the stars that the older boomers grew up with, it's welcome news: Streep, Eastwood, Neeson, Bridges, Michael Douglas and Helen Mirren are just a few of the actors who are in the midst of a late-career renaissance.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, about a group of British retirees who decide to move to India, is one of the most profitable films of the summer. Released in May, the Fox Searchlight movie -- whose ensemble cast includes Judi Dench, 77; Tom Wilkinson, 64; Bill Nighy, 62; and Maggie Smith, 77 -- was made for a modest $10 million but has grossed north of $46 million domestically and $131 million worldwide. Better yet, Searchlight spent a fraction of what a bigger studio spends to market a film since it rolled Marigold out slowly, banking on word-of-mouth.

In North America, Marigold made more than the genre mashup Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer ($37.2 million) or the Adam Sandler-Andy Samberg comedy That's My Boy ($37 million). And Focus Features' Moonrise Kingdom -- Wes Anderson's quirky coming-of-age story that features Bill Murray, 61, and Bruce Willis, 57 -- also overperformed throughout the summer, grossing $42 million to date.

Historically, the major studios haven't entirely ignored the older moviegoer -- 1985's Cocoon, 1989's Driving Miss Daisy, 1993's Grumpy Old Men and 2000's Space Cowboys were box-office hits in their day -- but the rise of the Franchise Age demanded a steady diet of big-budget tentpoles, so many of which starred the hot young actor of the moment and relegated Hollywood's seasoned veterans to mostly supporting roles. Amy Baer, who oversaw 2003's Something's Gotta Give during her tenure as Sony's executive vp production, recalls some resistance to the film's subject matter. "I remember when the script came in," she says. "Amy Pascal always loved it, but there were certain concerns coming from marketing. They asked, 'Are people going to want to watch these people kiss and have sex?' "

A quiet revolution within the studio system began in 2009 with the success of Julie & Julia, starring Streep and Amy Adams. Instead of releasing the film in fall or winter -- primetime for adult fare -- Sony went against conventional wisdom and opened the movie in August. Julie & Julia went on to become one of the most profitable films of that summer, grossing $94.1 million in North America. More than 55 percent of the film's opening-weekend audience was over age 50.

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The Expendables came a year later, co-written, directed by and starring Stallone, who roped in as many of his action contemporaries as he could, including Dolph Lundgren, Eric Roberts, Mickey Rourke, Jet Li and Jason Statham, most of whom could buy tickets for their own movie at the senior rate. Action stars aren't supposed to be quite so elderly, and no studio would touch the project, forcing Millennium Films to finance the movie independently before Lionsgate agreed to pony up for distribution rights.

Expendables was a resounding hit, grossing nearly $275 million globally and prompting this summer's sequel (which adds beefy roles for Willis; Arnold Schwarzenegger, 65; Chuck Norris, 72; and Jean-Claude Van Damme, 51). In October 2010, RED -- starring Willis, Mirren, Freeman and John Malkovich, 58, as mothballed spies who come out of retirement -- provided further proof that sexagenarians can wield guns and flex their muscles along with the best of them. Yes, action films like these still have the car chases and explosions general audiences are looking for, but for the older moviegoer, they can provide vicarious wish fulfillment.

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