Old People, Old Stars: Hollywood's New Hot Demo Is Saving the Box Office
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.
"The thing about the action stars in RED and Expendables is that they get to play it old," says Newcott. "How long did Roger Moore play James Bond but still try to play it like he was a guy in his 40s? Everybody had to play younger. Now they can play their actual age; that's the breakthrough." Adds AARP spokesperson Michelle Alvarez, "People in general are changing their perception of aging and what aging looks like."
Much like Expendables, Red couldn't find a major studio home -- despite the fact that it was based on a title published by Warner Bros. subsidiary DC Comics -- so producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura brought it to Summit Entertainment. The pic was a breakout success, grossing nearly $200 million worldwide. A sequel, which adds Anthony Hopkins, 74, to the returning original cast, will hit theaters in August 2013.
"I think these films are working because for a long time, films with older casts were very serious, very adult," says di Bonaventura. "These new crop of films have a more youthful quality to them and don't take themselves too seriously. They are trying to be mass entertainment. Summit got that we wanted to make a funny action picture."
Di Bonaventura, who also is producing January's Schwarzenegger action pic The Last Stand, speaks from experience. During his days as Warners' president of production, he raised eyebrows when he pushed to make Grumpy Old Men, the Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau box-office hit that spawned a sequel and TV series.
But if the major studios have been reluctant to embrace boomer projects in the past -- other than adult dramas -- most are now rushing to claim a piece of this lucrative market. They're also willing to pay healthy salaries to the likes of Streep, Stallone, Willis, Freeman, Douglas and Mirren, among others.
"They're getting their quote and more," says di Bonaventura. "And the biggest thing Arnold and Bruce have going for them is, there's not really a crop of young action stars to compete with."
Across Hollywood, almost every studio has a gray-haired contender: Warners has Eastwood as a grizzled baseball scout for Sept. 21's Trouble With the Curve. Universal is pursuing Dirty Grandpa (Bridges is mulling an offer), while CBS Films has Last Vegas, a comedy starring Douglas, Freeman and Robert De Niro, 69, which begins shooting in the fall. And Sony is prepping the elderly answer to The Hangover with Winter's Discontent, about a widower who moves into a retirement community with his best buddy with the hope of getting laid (the script was on the 2008 Black List).
And Sony is one studio that already has made major inroads between Julie & Julia and this summer's Hope Springs. The opening-weekend audience for Hope Springs -- about Jones and Streep trying to restore romance to their longtime marriage -- was virtually identical to Julie & Julia, with 55 percent over age 50. Hope Springs has outpaced expectations, grossing north of $35 million in its first 10 days.
As for marketing, yep, a lot goes back to AARP. Among the keys to Hope Springs' success was the August/September cover of AARP Magazine, which boasts one of the largest circulations of any publication in the world, reaching 50 million subscribers. "It's a big deal to get an AARP cover. I'm jealous of Hope Springs," says a veteran film marketing executive. "The filmmakers don't like it because they feel like they are selling their movies to their grandparents, but we love it."
While celebrities long have graced the AARP publication -- recent covers include Sharon Stone, 54, and Washington -- the organization has an increasing amount of pull with Hollywood's marketing mavens, according to Newcott.
In recent years, AARP started hosting a Movies for GrownUps film festival in conjunction with its annual national convention. At first, the studios offered only movies that already were in theaters, but last year, indie distributor Producers Distribution Agency prescreened Emilio Estevez's The Way at the AARP convention in Los Angeles. Estevez, 50, and his father, 72-year-old Martin Sheen, the film's star, walked the red carpet along with Charlie Sheen, 46.
This year, Fox is premiering its Christmas Day comedy Parental Guidance -- starring Billy Crystal, 64, and Bette Midler, 66, as a couple left in charge of their grandchildren -- at the AARP film festival, which runs Sept. 20 to 22 in New Orleans, in advance of the film's Christmas Day opening. Crystal and director Andy Fickman are accompanying the comedy to the AARP event. AARP also has seen interest in its annual Movies for GrownUps Awards pick up considerably. When the awards program was launched 10 years ago, AARP couldn't get anyone of note to come. Last year, Streep and Martin Scorsese, 79, were just a few of the notables attending.
Parental Guidance isn't the only studio picture making a major play for older moviegoers on Dec. 25 -- that same day, Paramount has The Guilt Trip, a road-trip comedy starring Barbra Streisand, 70, and Seth Rogen. The studio has two other films that are designed to woo older audiences: Robert Zemeckis' Flight, a smart thriller starring Washington, opens Nov. 2, and on Dec. 21, Jack Reacher, starring Tom Cruise, who just turned 50. Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore says boomers are one of Hollywood's rare demographic constants -- they always turn out. "This is a group that grew up going to the movies. It was before cable TV, before the VCR," he says. "At times, Hollywood forgets them but invariably comes back and realizes how steady and dependable they are."