Jane Fonda and Candice Bergen were some of the most seductive stars of the 1970s, with boundary-pushing fare like “Klute,” “Barbarella,” and “Carnal Knowledge” winning critical acclaim and filling theaters.
Five decades later, the question is whether their fanbase will turn for the decidedly more commercial “Book Club,” set to open wide on May 18 in a counterprogramming play against Fox’s potent sequel “Deadpool 2.”
Bergen, Fonda, Diane Keaton, and Mary Steenburgen stopped by the CinemaCon convention in April to banter and drink wine on stage, with Bergen quipping that she took exception to their introduction as “living legends.”
The film follows four friends — aged 65 and above — whose lives are disrupted when their book club decides to read E. L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Though the film is rated PG-13, the steamy novel puts them each in the mood to discover new romance or reunite with a former flame. The objects of their affections include Richard Dreyfuss, Don Johnson, Andy Garcia, and Craig T. Nelson.
All eight are well-known names, but it’ll be challenging to carve out an audience. Early tracking is showing “Deadpool 2” poised to dominate with as much as $140 million. Meanwhile, tracking for “Book Club” came in with a range of $7 million to $11 million.
Paramount has two weeks left to raise awareness about “Book Club” among the key demographics of females and moviegoers over 50. One of the studio’s taglines is, “The next act is always the best.”
“While this audience is not the ‘gotta run out to see it opening day’ crowd that studios covet, they more than make up for this more methodical approach by buoying the fortunes of the films they support over the long term in theaters,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst with comScore.
There’s plenty of potential from older audiences. An AARP survey last year found that U.S. moviegoers who are at least 50 years old comprise more than 30% of all admissions. The over-50 audience comprised 57% of the moviegoers who attended the Tom Hanks’ “Miracle on the Hudson” drama “Sully,” which generated $125 million domestically. The Helen Mirren-Ryan Reynolds drama “Women in Gold” was a particular favorite among older moviegoers, who comprised 82% of its audience.
“Book Club” producers-writers Bill Holderman and Erin Simms told Variety that the idea for the project came about from a very real place. Holderman also directed.
“We were working for Robert Redford in 2012 and ‘Fifty Shades’ had just come out and he was sending a copy to his mom for Mothers’ Day,” Simms recalled. “I thought it was hilarious but completely inappropriate, so I FedEx-ed a copy to my mom and another to my stepmom. On the next day, we thought we should start working on a script.”
As to casting, Simms and Holderman said all four actresses were the first choices for the role. In fact, Keaton’s character in the movie is named “Diane” because they had intended to cast her for the role. The duo said that they’re hopeful about the film’s prospects because of the authenticity the actresses brought.
“The friendship among the four women was amazing and they were so prepared for their roles,” Simms said. “We love things that are grounded in reality and I’m very into the rhythm of the dialogue as to how it’s spoken.”
The filmmakers have a track record with seasoned audiences: Holderman wrote and produced 2015’s successful indie “A Walk in the Woods,” which starred Redford and Nick Nolte, while Simms associate produced.
Holderman also produced “What They Had,” starring Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Blythe Danner, Josh Lucas, and Robert Forster, and the upcoming “Old Man and the Gun,” with Redford, Casey Affleck, and Sissy Spacek. Simms has producing credits on Netflix’s “Our Souls at Night,” starring Fonda and Redford.
“Movies aimed at older adults are much appreciated by seniors who often find themselves left out of the very youth-centric mega-blockbuster Hollywood equation,” Dergarabedian said. “However, this is a very important audience that wields tremendous spending power, but has little tolerance for the typical popcorn movies that often lack characters or stories that resonate with their more seasoned worldview.
Dergarabedian said, “Films from the specialized world tend to do extraordinarily well with older audiences who generally find the tenor, tone, measured pacing, and thoughtful storytelling to be more to their liking,” but the starry “Book Club” is set for a wider release of nearly 2,000 screens.
Of recent films surveyed by comScore with particular appeal to older moviegoers, Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” was by far the most successful with $182 million in domestic grosses, followed by “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” with $116.6 million, “The Monuments Men” with $78 million, “Last Vegas” with $64 million, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” with $59.3 million, “The Hundred-Foot Journey” with $54 million, and “Lion” with $51.7 million.