Decline of the Zitgeist

While music and movie fare is still tailored for the teen trade, no one seems to notice that the over-50 set constitutes the fastest growing sector of the audience.

I think I’ve lost touch with the zitgeist.

For years, marketing mavens have told us we have to fine-tune movies and music to suit teen tastes because they provide the economic underpinning of our pop culture. The same folks, however, should now be scratching their heads over the latest demographic data.

It seems they’ve been banking on the wrong demo. The numbers suggest that teen loyalty is on the wane. And guess which demographic group uniquely spends more for music and movies? The over-50 set, that’s who.

In fact, the geezer market is the only one that’s growing. The very people who have the toughest time getting jobs writing or directing movies or TV shows — or acting in them — are the most stalwart supporters of Hollywood product.

Doesn’t that make you wonder why more material isn’t tailored for them? Just about every major disdained the chance to distribute “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” yet it’s nudging the $100 million mark. No, this $5 million movie wasn’t aimed at the teen trade.

Here’s what the numbers say: In the decade between 1990 and 2000, the proportion of the moviegoing audience ages of 50 to 59 doubled from 5% to 10%. In the same period, that prime 16-20 age group dropped from 20% to 17%, with younger kids reflecting a similar decline.

Have trouble believing these numbers? Then explain what happened to all the kids who were supposed to troop to “Blue Crush” or “Stuart Little 2.” Did they get lost in the line of people waiting to revel in “Pluto Nash”?

All this may shed light on why the great surge in box office didn’t really materialize this year. Everyone was talking about a 20% jump, but the August slump brought this number down to 12% (again, where were those teens?). And much of this 12% increase could be attributed to the rise in ticket prices ($10 tickets are becoming commonplace) and to ever-widening release patterns. The number of saturation releases rose from 26 to 33 this summer, while average weekend opening grosses dropped from $25.4 million to $21.9 million. Second week dropoffs rose from 40% to 50% over the past three years alone.

Of course, the people who run the movie business look like geniuses compared with their confreres in the music industry.

Shipments of CDs dipped 7% this year, and the same demo trends prevailed in music as in movies. Teens aged 15-19 now account for 13% of the business compared with 18% 10 years ago, while those over 45 represented 24%, twice the total of a decade earlier. Further, sales of soundtracks and classical music improved over that period, while rock descended year after year.

Mind you, other industries are taking account of this phenomenon. In Europe, designers like Armani and Prada are developing lines for “mature” customers. They’re responding to the fact that only half as many people were born between 1990 and 1995 as between 1970 and 1975.

The upshot of all this? I’m not proposing that “Return to Golden Pond” be rushed into production, or that “Driving Miss Daisy” be re-birthed as a musical. Nor would I propose that David Brown, age 86, be named to succeed Lorenzo di Bonaventura at Warner Bros. (though he’d do a terrific job).

But some serious thought must be devoted to the Tyranny of the Teen. Sure, we’re all aware of the fact that it’s easier to titillate teen appetites by targeting MTV and the “hip” Web sites, but that’s not justification for the increasingly monochromatic nature of our pop culture. Whenever we read about new “franchises,” they are kid franchises. Surely, there should be a return to mid-priced movies that zero in on — perish the thought — grownups.

After all, they buy tickets. They buy CDs. And they’ve survived bringing up all those terrible teens.

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