Older-skewing films finding success

Movies with mature casts play to baby boomers with more free time

“When we started developing ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,'” recalls producer Graham Broadbent, “the maxim went that the older audience would only come out two to three times a year to the cinema, so there would only be maybe three films per year made for that audience.”

He pauses. “We may have read that slightly wrong.”

For years, Hollywood has operated with the understanding that only young people come to the movies in significant numbers, and therefore, movies needed to star more young people. But thanks to an aging generation of baby boomers with an increasing amount time on their hands and money to spend, films like Broadbent’s “Marigold Hotel” are helping to change those old beliefs.

“Marigold,” whose youngest lead (Bill Nighy) is 62, has earned nearly $132 million worldwide since its May release — and it’s just the latest in a recent string of box office hits featuring actors over the age of 60. “Red” (2010) starred Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich and Bruce Willis, all of whom are at least of AARP age, and took in $196 million worldwide with “Red 2” queued up for a 2013 release; more recently, “Hope Springs,” with leads Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, has earned $105 million since September. Judi Dench and Albert Finney kick butt in megahit “Skyfall,” while Batman could not be the Caped Crusader without Freeman’s ingenious inventor and 79-year-old Michael Caine’s devoted Alfred. Octogenarian Clint Eastwood is still good for a movie every year, whether he directs it, stars in it or both. Even 2010’s “The Expendables” ($274 million worldwide) and its sequel ($300 million worldwide) starred Sylvester Stallone (66) and featured Arnold Schwarzenegger (65), Chuck Norris (72) and a bevy of actions stars in their late 40s and 50s.

People 25-39 remain the biggest segment of frequent moviegoers, but the numbers for the over-50 crowd have been climbing in recent years as boomers age and the percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds decline, according to the MPAA.

“It’s not rocket science to think about what’s happening to the aging audience, and you have to wonder why anyone caters exclusively to twentysomethings, when there’s this enormous bulge of baby boomers,” says film historian and Vanity Fair contributing editor Peter Biskind.

The money men (and women) — insurers, financiers, studios — however, can be slow to embrace such shifts, and are often leery of films whose main cast is in the over-60 age range. Producer Finola Dwyer says making “Quartet,” about a group of opera singers in a retirement home for musicians with a cast whose youngest member, Billy Connolly, was 69, encountered some particular difficulties when it came to securing money.

“Financiers are always risk-averse,” she explains. “You basically had to convince everyone that (the actors) were up for it. There were conversations about ‘what if someone passes away?’ They all passed their medical (exams), but I never had a bond company require so many medical tests.”

In the case of “Hope Springs,” having two steadily working A-listers in the lead roles helped enormously, say producers Todd Black and Guymon Casady. “We were clear we wanted this to be a studio release, not an indie film, so that’s a little more of a challenge,” says Black. “If we didn’t have Meryl and Tommy, we’d have had a harder time getting it financed in a bigger way.”

Fortunately Nathan Kahane, then-president of co-producer Mandate Pictures, helped to secure the financials that would make Streep affordable. Once she was onboard, Sony Pictures became interested, says Black, and things happened quickly.

Still, concerns by financiers are not entirely misplaced; older actors come with specific issues both pro and con. When “Hitchcock” began filming, Anthony Hopkins was 73, and had to undergo 90 minutes of makeup and prosthetics each day before he could even begin the acting portion of his job. Shooting hours and days had to be reduced, according to producer Tom Pollock.

“We could not work him for the kinds of hours you usually see on a movie,” Pollock says. “We had to make sure he had enough rest; he’s in 90% of the movie.”

Actors’ health and stamina also factored into the shooting schedule on “Quartet,” notes Dwyer, who says the production had five-day weeks and golf carts to shuttle actors around the large mansion that served as the main set. Some of the actors also battled eyesight and hearing issues. Dwyer recalls actress Pauline Collins telling her, “They don’t realize our hearing is not what it was,” after specific instructions went unheard more than one time.

Yet there are enormous advantages to using veteran thesps as well. “The best part of working with seasoned actors is they know the game,” Black says.

In the end, box office will out: The more movies with older casts that profit, the more such films will be greenlit , all of which seems much likelier as boomers age, and have more free time. That creates new vistas for producers and studios, as well.

“There is a big audience out there,” Black says. “It’s nice in a shrinking movie market to know a new window has opened.” What: Pix with aging stars are gaining box office traction.
The takeaway: As baby boomers get more free time, Hollywood sees an alternative demographic to youth-themed films.