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Why Specialty Films Are Going Gray

Silver-topped moviegoers can lead to gold for filmmakers looking to take a breather from mining big-budget franchise fare.

Older audiences have turned out in force this year, pushing films like “Woman in Gold” and “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” to healthy returns at the specialty box office, with Ian McKellen starrer “Mr. Holmes” also off to a strong start. This month brings comedies “Grandma” and “Ricki and the Flash” pitched at the AARP set.

“These people want to go to movies, they like to go to movies, they’re in the habit of going to movies,” said Jack Foley, distribution chief at Bleecker Street, the distributor of niche hit “I’ll See You in My Dreams.”

Meanwhile indies like “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” and “Dope,” that which catered to blockbuster-friendly younger audiences, have faltered. Of course, younger moviegoers continue to be the driving force behind the biggest summer blockbusters. After all, studio greenlight committees were not thinking of Florida snowbirds when they okayed the latest “Jurassic Park” or “Avengers” sequels.

Yet while the number of frequent moviegoers between the ages of 12 to 24 has fallen over the past five years, those older than 50 have increased. They still buy a fraction of the tickets teenagers do, but they show fewer signs of abandoning the cinema for other diversions.

“Older people are the one demographic that’s been growing consistently over the last several years,” said Eric Handler, an analyst with MKM Partners. To succeed, marketers must be savvy. In the case of “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” the story of a widow (Blythe Danner) rebelling against the constraints of senior citizenship, that meant advertising heavily in print, forgoing expensive television spots entirely, and reaching out to retirement communities. Instead of sticking to major cities like New York and Los Angeles, Bleecker Street pushed the pic in older-skewing areas like Orange County, Calif., and Boca Raton, Fla. The film, acquired for less than a $1 million out of Sundance, has made north of $7 million.

“It can be slow going, but the grosses stay solid week to week,” said Foley. “When this audience likes a movie, it will embrace it and sustain its life over a long time.”

Indeed, distributing films pegged at this audience requires patience. The opening weekends aren’t massive, but the films themselves have remarkable resilience.“The Hundred-Foot Journey,” a film about feuding restaurant owners, starring Helen Mirren, debuted last summer to a modest $11 million, but went on to rack up an impressive $54.2 million domestically. Its final gross was five times its opening, in marked contrast to most major releases that are lucky to make more than three times their opening weekends during their theatrical lifetimes.

Ricki and the Flash,” a comedy about an aging rocker played by Meryl Streep, occupies the same slot as “Hundred-Foot Journey,” and distributor Sony foresees a film that could be similarly resilient. It is predicting a similar life cycle to that of 2012’s “Hope Springs,” which featured Streep and Tommy Lee Jones as a couple hoping to reignite their sex life. That picture opened to $14.7 million, and made $63.5 million at the domestic B.O.

“This audience loves to go, but they’re not all going the first week,” said Rory Bruer, Sony’s distribution chief. “(‘Ricki and the Flash’) is like a fine wine. It’s something that is going to be savored for many weeks to come.”

There are signs that companies are beginning to get wise to the power of this consumer group, studio executives say.

While awards bait and prestige films camp out at the end of the year, comedies and quiet dramas spread out in other seasons. “Woman in Gold” and “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” opened in spring, where they more or less had the field to themselves.

“It’s become more and more of a 12 month a year business,” said Erik Lomis, distribution chief at the Weinstein Company, the studio behind “Woman in Gold.” “This audience needs something to go see all year long, just like kids.”

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