Box Office Lesson: Older Crowd Prefers Seasoned Stars, Shuns Youngsters

Illustration by: Ryan Inzana

George Clooney, Sandra Bullock and Tom Hanks helped "Gravity" and "Captain Phillips" become hits in part because the over-50 demo loves stars their own age -- a problem for youngsters.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

As moviegoers began lining up for Gravity in early October, box-office observers predicted that the Saturday haul would increase by 5 percent over the Friday opening. But defying the normal pattern, Alfonso Cuaron's space epic shot up 32 percent on Saturday on its way to a $55.8 million opening, one of the top October debuts of all time. The secret? Instead of younger males, who typically turn out on Friday nights, the film drew older ticket buyers -- and especially baby boomers -- who waited a day to see favorites Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.

The weekend's takeaway: Stars still matter to the growing older demo of moviegoers. The largest segment of Gravity's opening-weekend audience -- 32 percent -- was 50 or over; nearly 60 percent was older than 35, according to exit-polling service CinemaScore. And they came not just for the visual effects: Forty-two percent of the audience said they showed up to watch Bullock, while 40 percent turned out for Clooney.

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The same phenomenon repeated itself when Sony's Captain Phillips opened to a better-than-expected $25.7 million the following weekend. Twenty-eight percent of ticket buyers were 50 and older, and many were attracted by the reassuring presence of Tom Hanks.

"Older audiences require a more substantive reason to see a movie than just a 'wow' factor or an effective trailer. Star power, while seemingly unimportant to younger moviegoers who appear to only care about concept, acts as sort of a movie insurance policy," says Rentrak box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian. "A Hanks, Clooney or Bullock in a movie takes some of the risk out of the equation when older audiences make the decision to invest their time and money in a particular film."

Warner Bros. distribution chief Dan Fellman agrees: "Sandra and George absolutely serve as a point of reference." According to his studio's private exit polls, a lot of people, many of them older who have made only one trip to the multiplex this year, are turning out for Gravity.

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Some boomers might have fallen out of regular moviegoing, but many retain the habits they grew up with. The 76 million boomers -- those born between 1946 and 1964 -- have tremendous spending power and increasingly are becoming important to Hollywood. Even though Leonardo DiCaprio is only 38, he holds a certain sway among boomers, who contributed to The Great Gatsby's $145 million domestic take. And The Weinstein Co. made sure Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker were front and center when it rolled out Lee Daniels' The Butler, cultivating an audience that spent more than $114 million domestically. "Older moviegoers are drawn to films where talent is willing to do publicity. Oprah and Forest did everything we asked," says TWC distribution chief Erik Lomis. "I think some of today's younger talent could borrow a page from some of the older stars."

Indeed, newer stars seem to carry little weight with older generations, who prefer to patronize movies starring old favorites. Ron Howard's Rush got good reviews but Chris Hemsworth and newcomer Daniel Bruhl aren't recognizable, and the movie has flopped.

Rush appealed mostly to an older audience, but the stars lured just 23 percent of ticket-buyers. Ditto for The Fifth Estate, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. It died a quick death over the Oct. 18 weekend, grossing $1.7 million.

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Kevin Goetz of pollster PostTrak believes the allure of movie stars is generational. "For those who are over the age of 40 or 45, a nostalgia factor sets in," he says. "Stars used to be nurtured in a different way. They had real careers and worked on movies that were important, such as Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump. Show me a younger star who has the same meaning."

This summer, nearly 40 percent of Man of Steel's opening-weekend audience was under 25. They ranked the subject matter as the biggest reason for showing up (63 percent); only 21 percent lined up for star Henry Cavill. For Star Trek Into Darkness, only 11 percent of ticket buyers said they were attracted by male leads Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto. "Know thy audience," says Dergarabedian. "Each age group responds differently to wildly divergent motivating factors. As the adult drama is having a resurgence, so are the older stars who are fueling the success of many of those films."