Siobhan Synnot on the grey pound becoming a new target market for Hollywood
AS Hope Springs reaches the cinemas this weekend, Siobhan Synnott reflects on the grey pound becoming a significant new target market for Hollywood
Why are so many of our movies horror flicks, prom comedies, and comic book and video game adaptations? Blame teenagers, a section of the movie-going audience whose cravings traditionally drive an industry. But what about a big group who have both spending power and more free time than ever before? You’d think cinemas would be interested in scooping them up; but until recently, older audiences have been the perennially invisible men and women.
However, after years of fawning over the fanboy, Hollywood is suddenly waking up to the power of the baby boomer, after Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Descendants, The Ides of March, The Iron Lady and The Artist successfully elbowed their way into the box office top tens. The message was clear enough: despite being ignored, older movie fans were getting up, heading out and buying tickets, just as sales to the younger moviegoer appear to be stalling.
My own parents adored Mamma Mia!, were lukewarm about The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, found Amazing Spider-Man a bit noisy and childish, and are now curious about Hope Springs. This speaks of a certain independence of mind – or to put it another way, they read my reviews in Scotland on Sunday, but go anyway.
One-fifth of Scots are 60 and older, and their ideal film appears to be smart, emotionally appealing and maybe with the bonus of a reliable movie veteran in the middle of it all. Special effects and blockbuster spectacles are not a deal breaker. Small, independent pictures can deliver this kind of movie, and because their stories don’t require £100million budgets, the studios don’t need them to generate enormous profits. The King’s Speech cost £10m, and if it had failed in cinemas, its distributor Momentum would not have fretted too much. Instead, Colin Firth quavering quips at Helena Bonham Carter and Geoffrey Rush went on to make £260m worldwide, so now Momentum is back again this autumn with Hope Springs, a film about an older couple who surrender to a week-long marriage therapy course.
You can just imagine the pitch: “He’s a grumpy accountant who falls asleep in front of the golf. She works in a clothes shop. Neither of them have had sex in five years.” Hope Springs is for thirty-somethings, in the sense that it talks about a couple who’ve been together for 30 years. Yet the film, which opens this Friday in Scotland, has already made back its £35m budget in America.
“Is it one for the teenagers?” snorts its director David Frankel. “Perhaps not, but they are welcome to come along – and in fact, they do. The feeling of not having any sex or not having enough sex is universal – I mean who thinks they`re having enough sex? But above all we have an audience of baby boomers who feel there aren’t enough intelligent movies out there, and they will turn out for something like Hope Springs. The only challenge here was to make a picture with two extraordinary actors and not screw it up.”
The two stars, Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, caused a sharp intake of breath in cinemas with a scene where the triple Academy award-winning Streep attempts to reawaken her dormant sex life with Lee Jones in the middle row of a cinema. But the film industry considered it far more daring when the two stars appeared on the cover of the American Association of Retired Persons’ Magazine, America’s answer to Saga, since it implied that Hope Springs was a movie for your grandparents.
“Oh please,” says Frankel. “Women see Tommy Lee Jones as sexy, and Meryl’s still got it. Those who do see it identify strongly with these characters. While we were making it, Meryl would say, ‘My husband will love this’.”
Frankel reflects a new confidence in “geezer pleasers,” as they’re called in the industry. Films which target a young audience have a tendency to open with high attendance then fade out quickly, but films for older fans do more consistent business throughout their runs.
Teens may pay full-price on Friday – no cheap Wednesday deals for them – and the hefty 3D and IMAX surcharges, but they are also easily distracted, and a lot of the new distractions – video games, social networking, the ability to watch films on iPads or iPhones – mean that younger movie-goers are not the growth sector they once were.
Older audiences are more reliable. They are also patriotic, tending to favour homegrown movies over Hollywood – last year British independent films were responsible for 13 per cent of UK box-office takings, a new record.
Further good news for cinema managers is that they are also interested in alternative programming. The Picturehouse cinema chain, which includes the Edinburgh Cameo and Aberdeen Belmont, regularly targets the older market with cultural theatre screenings such as Madam Butterfly 3D and the Danny Boyle stage hit Frankenstein – attractive prospects for a group who enjoy prestige theatre but are happy with a guaranteed good seat and a substantial saving on West End prices.
Long term, the influence of silver screeners may force studios to confront ingrained prejudices, including the ageist attitude towards actresses above the age of 35. As far as the older audience is concerned, Miley Cyrus and Zac Efron are just high scores in Scrabble: Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep and Judi Dench are the pin-ups for this age group.
At 63, Streep has never been more attractive at the box-office. In 2006, she wore great clothes and was unblushingly rude to young people in The Devil Wears Prada. She had affairs with three men and sang about it in Mamma Mia! in 2008, which outgrossed James Bond that year. Julia & Julia, It’s Complicated and The Iron Lady have all made decent profits for studios, without requiring support from dinosaurs, zombies or spandex hero costumes.
And British actresses are particularly admired by the older set for their quality and durability. Last year The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel rounded up Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton and Celia Imrie as pensioners who decide to retire to live in an Indian palace, with a pointed nod towards the issue of a top heavy population hitting their sixties. Made for £25m, it returned a five fold profit. Dustin Hoffman’s upcoming Quartet, a gentle drama about four opera singers living in a retirement home, seems to have taken a leaf out of the same book: it stars Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins, Billy Connolly and another appearance by Dame Maggie Smith.
Old doesn’t mean infirm either. Action movies are enormously popular with the older movie-goer, with next month’s Taken 2 suggesting that 59-year-old Liam Neeson cuts an aspirational figure; someone who looks a bit like you, and gets the best of the bad guys. Earlier this year, Denzel Washington, 57, bashed his way through the thriller Safe House and even The Bourne Legacy found booster power from the over-50s, who made up a third of those buying tickets when it opened in August.
And of course there’s The Expendables 2, where a dirty dozen of 1980s he-men hark back to the good old days of Rambo and Commando when men were men and entire countries could be pummelled. A year after The King’s Speech, Hollywood is still tentative about overcommissioning pensioner pictures. “No-one has asked me to write any more of those scripts and I’m still as broke as ever,” says Ol Parker, who adapted Deborah Moggach’s These Foolish Things into the script for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
However, film-maker David Frankel thinks that these adult dramas will prevail, because they speak to us all, eventually: “It’s true that the problems facing older people in movies tend to be more complex than teenage dilemmas, and yet they can strike a chord with everyone. It’s the idea that “it’s never too late” to change ourselves, our lives, our circumstances, no matter how old you are. Having something to hope for is enormously appealing. That’s part of everyone’s life.”
• Hope Springs is in cinemas from tomorrow
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Thursday 20 June 2013
Temperature: 11 C to 19 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: North
Temperature: 11 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West