Hollywood zooms in on boomers' money

Could gray become the new green?

Faced with a tightening economy and audience fragmentation, showbiz is seeking fresh ways to “monetize” viewers. And with the battle for younger audiences more competitive than ever, the bull’s-eye is widening to include those over 50.

The older crowd, not just the teens, is triggering big opening weekends for certain movies, registering ever more importantly in the Nielsen universe, backing hot (middle-aged) rock groups and even buying videogames.

The era of teen tryanny may be drawing to an end, media mavens now conclude.

Much of this has to do with baby boomers, now age 44-62. There are 78 million of them in the U.S., — aging like no generation before as they approach retirement kicking and screaming, as well as spinning and jogging. People 55-plus now account for more than 30% of the nation’s adult population, with the 55-64 category growing by almost 4% in Nielsen’s most recent TV universe estimates.

By contrast, teens and 18- to 24-year-olds actually declined. That young-adult demographic has been a decades-long fixation for media buyers, who pay a premium for these elusive viewers.

Whereas 18- to 24-year-olds can be notoriously fickle, boomers consistently back products and talent they like. And while younger consumers are still building up their buying power, boomers have money, plenty of it, to burn.

“We think it’s important to target people that are earning paychecks as opposed to those that are earning allowances,” deadpans Jess Aguirre, senior VP of research for the Hallmark Channel. That cable network, which draws a lot of older viewers, is embarking on a major survey to identify differences in the way boomers and “millenials” (age 14-31) use and consume media.

They hope to remind media buyers of the wide disparity in income levels — obviously favoring the former group — and to monetize an older audience largely considered merely “a bonus” for advertisers.

Similarly, while movie studios typically tailor their cinematic adrenaline-rushes to teens and young males — the most likely segment to provide the backbone to a blockbuster’s opening weekend — that mindset is evolving.

With “Rambo” and “Rocky” star Sylvester Stallone proving there’s room for a 61-year-old action hero, and then endorsing presidential candidate John McCain — who, at 71, rebounded from his own rocky start to emerge as the Republican frontrunner — the aging population’s attributes (symbolic and otherwise) are becoming increasingly difficult for showbiz to ignore.

Consider the graying audience’s influence in various media:

  • The over-40 crowd, which has always driven the success of the burgeoning specialty-film market, is spreading to big-studio wide releases. Hollywood usually counts on the under-30 demo to spark a big opening weekend, with older viewers catching up with the film later. But studio execs attributed the bigger-than-expected bows of Disney’s “Wild Hogs” and Warner Bros.’ “The Bucket List” to the graying demo.

  • In Nielsen’s most recent estimates, adults 55 and older were the only segment to register significant increases. Big ratings for programs like ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” and CBS’ “Comanche Moon” (the “Lonesome Dove” prequel) were fueled by older-audience tune-ins. Two-thirds of the “Moon” aud fell in the 50-plus age group.

  • The top-grossing U.S. touring act in 2007 was the Police ($133 million), the rock group consisting of three boomers. Also in the top 10 were such acts as Van Halen (No. 5), Rod Stewart (7) and Genesis (8).

  • In a late-2007 study, NARM estimated that 70% of boomers buy music, mostly in the form of CDs. The study says that the demo accounts conservatively for $700 million in music-buying.

  • An increasing number of videogames are skewing older, such as Oberon Media’s “Women’s Murder Club.” Electronic Arts recently formed a division aimed at older gamers, who are also targeted by some Nintendo works, particularly with the handheld DS. And AARP — with 39 million members above the age of 50 — says its gaming area generates more hits than anything else on its website.

  • Some social-networking sites are also targeting older audiences, adopting a look the New York Times somewhat snidely likened to “Facebook with wrinkles.”

AARP chief brand officer Emilio Pardo says the over-50 crowd has enormous spending power, totaling an estimated $3.4 trillion. “If you look at the sheer numbers of the boomers, that’s one factor,” he says. “Clearly, the buying power is there. … If you ignore it, you’re never going to tap into a majority of the nation’s wealth.”

Buddy comedy “The Bucket List,” starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, outpaced expectations on its opening weekend, and has notched nearly $60 million in the domestic till. As far as audience makeup, 70% were over the age of 30; studies don’t break down ages more specifically, but execs concede that most of those are likely over 40.

“What has really been striking is the fact that the movie has performed extremely well both in metro areas and in smaller markets,” says Warner Bros. prexy of domestic distribution Dan Fellman. “There’s a huge audience out there for an older movie.”

Older moviegoers also drove the performance of Universal’s Tom Hanks-Julia Roberts starrer “Charlie Wilson’s War,” which has grossed $65 million domestically since its Christmas release.

Despite broadcasters’ best efforts to woo younger viewers, median viewing ages for the major networks keep rising.

Not that those eyeballs necessarily translate into revenue. The tyranny of ratings and a predisposition toward younger demos has long mitigated against mature audiences.

Yet even there, niche cable networks — more out of pragmatism than corporate benevolence — are attempting to mine gold from this long-neglected age bracket, including a channel aimed at those 55 and older, Retirement Living TV.

If an attitudinal shift is gradually occurring, it’s as simple as the concept of demography as destiny — raw data that can’t be as readily overlooked as the eldest baby boomers (among them Bill Clinton and George W. Bush) pass the age-60 threshold.

The challenge for channels with an older audience becomes one of convincing advertisers they’re worth reaching. Viacom’s TV Land commissioned a study that accentuated boomers’ collective buying power and openness to new products — long a rationale for bypassing them to chase younger groups, whose evolving tastes were deemed more impressionable and susceptible to advertising.

The explosion of options allowed for the birth of Retirement Living. Launched in 2006, the network initially tapped into usual-suspect ad categories (pharmaceuticals and financial services) but is working to make headway elsewhere, from toys (grandparents are major purchasers) to travel to an online dating service aimed at what VP of sales Gig Barton calls “the tsunami of seniors” that’s coming as boomers age.

“I had a potential client say it was incredibly refreshing to have a channel come in that was embracing this demographic instead of downplaying it,” says Barton, whose talking points include that older viewers are more likely to sit through programs and thus see commercials — a growing consideration in today’s channel-zapping world.

Another refrain from demographers has been that because boomers are unlike any previous generation, they shatter firmly held conceptions and prejudices that still must be dispelled.

“People have pretty much thrown out the idea that people make a brand choice very young and stay with that brand forever,” Barton says.

The music world is seeing similar shifts. Acts like the Eagles and Rolling Stones continue filling concert venues and ranking among the most lucrative rock tours. As a case in point, 57-year-old Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers take center stage at this year’s Super Bowl, though they’re relative whippersnappers compared with the 2005 and ’06 halftime entertainment: Paul McCartney and the Stones.

In the videogame world, young men remain the primary consumers, powering titles like “Halo” and “Call of Duty.” Despite Nintendo publicity photos for Wii, it’s rare to find anyone over 50 powering up a console. However, publishers are broadening their horizons — partially in search of new revenue and to restrain development costs, since young males demand the deepest gameplay and highest quality graphics.

Games like “Guitar Hero,” which appeals to virtually all demos, are the Holy Grail. But an increasing number of titles are skewing older.

AARP, meanwhile, is gearing up to present its seventh annual Movies for Grownups honors, recognizing “The Savages” as its top picture, and Chris Cooper (“Breach”) and Julie Christie (“Away From Her”) as the lead actor and actress over 50. The org’s research shows a significant increase in movie attendance by older viewers.

Although nobody anticipates a sudden or dramatic shift away from Hollywood’s youth obsession, AARP and others hope to see the power seniors wield in electoral politics (where they’re more apt to vote than are younger demos) reflected in the media’s ballot box.

“We’re seeing some really positive signs,” AARP’s Pardo says, while stressing there’s still much work to do. “We need to be treated with the respect and the dignity this population deserves.”

(Pamela McClintock and Ben Fritz contributed to this report.)

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