Hollywood Awakens to the Geriatric Demographic

The New York Times

July 2, 2006

Hollywood Awakens to the Geriatric Demographic


WHEN Hollywood marketing gurus speak about “the older audience,” they generally don’t mean older by much. Box office tallies, for instance, are often reviewed with an eye to the percentage of moviegoers over and under the age of 25.

Studio specialty divisions like Fox Searchlight, Sony Classics and Focus Features might stretch the definition of “older” audiences to moviegoers between 35 and 50. Viewers in that range helped to make movies like “Sideways” and “The Constant Gardener” successful.

But where does that leave truly older audiences, fossils over 50 or 60 or even 70? To Hollywood these have been the perennially invisible men and women. Yet change is afoot. Some filmmakers and smaller distributors have discovered a secret society of mature moviegoers, and they have decided that this audience may actually be worth courting.

One of the most striking recent forays toward the older audience comes from Susan Seidelman, 53, who established herself as a hip young director when she made “Smithereens” in 1982 and “Desperately Seeking Susan” with Madonna in 1985.

Last year Ms. Seidelman made “Boynton Beach Club,” a comedy about romance in a community for the elderly in Florida, starring a raft of 60-ish performers like Dyan Cannon, Sally Kellerman, Brenda Vaccaro, Len Cariou, Joe Bologna and Renée Taylor. Ms. Seidelman financed the movie independently, then tried to sell it to one of the studios.

“They all said to me, ‘It’s a nice movie, but we don’t believe there’s enough commercial potential in that demographic,’ ” Ms. Seidelman recalled. “That didn’t compute for me. I’m over 50, and I go to the movies at least once a week. My mother is over 70, and she goes twice a week. My 16-year-old son barely goes at all. He’s online all the time. I think people over 50 are the most under-represented audience.” (Statistics compiled by the Motion Picture Association of America show that moviegoers 50 and older accounted for 23.9 percent of the total audience last year, up slightly from 21.3 percent in 2001.)

The film got the attention of audiences in South Florida and Palm Springs, Calif., when Ms. Seidelman engineered a limited release in those regions. Now, “Boynton Beach Club” will be seen around the country when Roadside Attractions releases it on Aug. 4.

Richard D. Zanuck, a veteran producer who is now 71, learned some lessons about the senior market 17 years ago when he and his wife, Lili Fini Zanuck, produced “Driving Miss Daisy” with Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman. No one wanted to finance it, but the movie went on to earn more than $100 million and won the Academy Award as best picture of 1989.

“After the movie succeeded,” Mr. Zanuck recalled, “one executive told me that ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ was a ‘nonrecurring phenomenon.’ Millions of people went to the theater to see it. Why is that nonrecurring?”

Recent films that have tapped the older audience include “Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont,” with Joan Plowright as a widow moving into a rooming house in London; “The World’s Fastest Indian,” starring Anthony Hopkins as a motorcyclist whose speed puts younger cyclists to shame; and “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” with Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins playing unlikely partners in a burlesque theater during World War II. On Sept. 15 ThinkFilm will release “Keeping Mum,” which stars Maggie Smith as a murderous housekeeper working for Kristin Scott-Thomas and Rowan Atkinson.

By some accounts it was “Ladies in Lavender,” which featured Dame Maggie and Dame Judi as two sisters living on the Cornwall coast, that really opened eyes to the potency of this neglected audience. The movie was filmed in the fall of 2003 and played at the Toronto International Film Festival in the fall of 2004. Michael McClellan, vice president and film booker for Landmark Theaters, saw it and felt strongly that people who frequented his art houses would respond to the movie.

“But the studios didn’t see a value in a film that would appeal to a niche audience,” he said. “I was baffled by their response. I felt the cast and the period setting had a definite appeal.”

Partly because of Mr. McClellan’s prodding and partly because the film did big business when it opened in Britain early 2005, Roadside Attractions finally decided to distribute the film. Originally Howard Cohen and Eric D’Arbeloff, the chief executives of the company, had turned it down along with everyone else.

“We listened to all the naysayers who said ‘Ladies in Lavender’ was a plotless movie about two old ladies,” Mr. Cohen said. The film grossed just under $7 million in the United States, which is impressive for a British period film. Mr. McClellan pointed out that since most of the admissions were at elderly discount prices, the actual number of paying patrons was larger than the grosses indicated. “It appealed to a more literate, literary audience,” Mr. McClellan said.

“Mrs. Palfrey” opened at the end of last year in New York and Los Angeles in order to qualify for the Academy Awards. The initial reviews were only fair, and the movie got lost in the Christmas rush. To make matters worse, the marketing people forgot to submit Dame Joan’s name to the academy for consideration as best actress, so the movie seemed doomed.

But when it played at the Palm Springs Film Festival in January, it won the audience award in that desert retirement community. The distributor, Jour de Fête Films, booked it immediately after the festival in two Palm Springs theaters, where it played for three months and grossed close to $100,000, with minimal advertising in the local newspapers. Jour de Fête began to open it in other cities around the country, and in cities where the reviews were good, the grosses were astonishingly high. It did big business in Seattle, Detroit, Boston, Minneapolis, Santa Fe and other cities.

On June 2 “Mrs. Palfrey” reopened at one of Landmark’s theaters in Los Angeles and out-grossed three newer movies at the multiplex. It is now in its fourth week of reissue, and it will also reopen at the Quad Cinema in New York this summer. The film’s director, Dan Ireland, commented: “How many films are made for an elderly audience? They respond because the film treats the older characters with humanity.”

Most distributors, however, are still skeptical about this audience. When Ms. Seidelman initially found no buyers for “Boynton Beach Club,” she decided to open the film herself in a couple of areas with a large elderly population. “I was calling the newspapers to place the ads,” Ms. Seidelman reported. “My mother was handing out flyers and putting up posters in delis in West Palm Beach.” (Her mother, Florence Seidelman, had suggested the story and is credited as one of the film’s producers.) The movie earned $100,000 in its first week in just 10 theaters.

Mr. Cohen and Mr. D’Arbeloff had originally turned down the movie, just as they had turned down “Ladies in Lavender,” but they started paying attention to the grosses. “The per-screen average jumped out at me,” Mr. Cohen recalled. “And the movie was not just playing in art houses.” In a mall in Orlando, Fla., Ms. Seidelman observed, the movie outgrossed “The Da Vinci Code.” So Roadside Attractions decided to pick the film up for national distribution.

“It’s an event movie for older audiences because it’s about dating and sex,” Mr. Cohen said. He noted that Dyan Cannon was in one of the emblematic movies about the sexual revolution of the 60’s, “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.” “Now she’s in an emblematic movie about senior sexuality,” he observed. “This movie really shows that 60 is the new 40,” Mr. D’Arbeloff added.



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