Faith in material transcends issue of older cast

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Consider this pitch meeting: It’s a $70 million feature about a group of retired CIA agents who become assassination targets because of the secrets they know. The source material calls for most of the heavily armed cast to be over 55 years old.

It’s not hard to imagine the sound of chuckling and a lot of doors closing.

New-millennium Hollywood may be progressive enough to hand its best picture Oscar to a Bollywood-inspired fairy tale or its best director kudos to a woman, but when it comes to age onscreen, youth still holds sway.

Yet that hardly dissuaded producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura from taking Warren Ellis’ edgy comicbook series “Red” out to the studios in 2008. Though the onetime executive was coming off the runaway box office hit “Transformers,” he admits he wasn’t exactly met with open arms.

“A lot of people passed on it,” recalls di Bonaventura, who describes the pic as an unconventional “Dirty Dozen” or “Ocean’s Eleven.” “Most studios didn’t get it. But Summit did. And they snapped it up.”

More than simply develop it, Summit fast-tracked the property and greenlit the feature after seeing Erich and Jon Hoeber’s first draft. The risk-taking company behind the “Twilight” franchise and “The Hurt Locker” also invested enough resources in “Red” to lure an A-list cast. Enter Bruce Willis (age 55), Morgan Freeman (age 73), Helen Mirren (age 65) and John Malkovich (age 56) to topline, and the AARP-friendly film was lensing only 18 months after di Bonaventura set up the unlikely material.

Still, he insists that “Red” is hardly a single-quadrant film.

“What’s really fun about this film is everyone is responding positively,” says the producer, whose credits also include “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” and “Salt.” “I’ve had some hardcore action movies that have tested much worse with young males. When you get the queen herself (Mirren) behind a .50-caliber machine gun, everybody really responds to that.”

For years, Hollywood has largely eschewed projects built around older thesps, even as occasional offerings like “Gran Torino,” “Grumpy Old Men,” “Space Cowboys” and “On Golden Pond” found broad demographic appeal. But lately, fans are beginning to demand that their favorite actors — regardless of age — be considered for choice gigs (think of the successful Facebook campaign calling for Betty White to host “Saturday Night Live”).

“?’The Expendables’ showed there is clearly still an audience” for films with older protags, notes Columbia Pictures president Matt Tolmach, who is exploring the senior circuit by developing “Winter’s Discontent,” a “Hangover”-esque comedy set in a retirement community with Larry Charles attached to direct. “Yes, ‘Red’ was a bold move. But it’s great material. When people say, ‘You can’t get people to go to a movie with an older cast,’ I say, ‘Really?’ People also said you can’t get people to go to an R-rated comedy.”

And though di Bonaventura the producer saw the potential in “Red,” would di Bonaventura the former Warner Bros. chief have championed the project?

“Yeah, I think I would have,” he says. “I think I would have seen what the people at Summit saw. It does not play like other movies out there. It felt like it had product differentiation. At least I’d like to think I would have made this film.”

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