Hollywood and older Americans have never had much use for each other. The 50-plus crowd doesn’t go to opening weekends or buy popcorn; a youth-obsessed Hollywood has happily ignored them.
But in the last few months an older audience has made a startling reassertion of its multiplex power. “True Grit,” “The King’s Speech,” “The Fighter,” “Black Swan” — all movies in contention for a clutch of Oscars on Sunday — have all been surprise hits at the box office.
And they have all been powered by people for whom 3-D means wearing glasses over glasses, and “Twilight” sounds vaguely threatening.
Hollywood, slower than almost any other industry to market to baby boomers, may be getting a glimpse of its graying future. While the percentage of moviegoers in the older population remains relatively small, the actual number of older moviegoers is growing explosively — up 67 percent since 1995, according to GfK MRI, a media research firm.
And the first of the 78 million baby boomers are hitting retirement age with some leisure hours to fill and a long-dormant love affair with movies.
“There is an older audience that is growing, and it’s an underserved audience, which makes for an obvious and important opportunity,” said Nancy Utley, co-president of Fox Searchlight, whose “Black Swan” has sold over $100 million at the North American box office. If the core audience for a particular film is over 50, she noted, “that’s now a gigantic core.”
There are glimmers of a shift. Aging action stars; theaters with adult fare, like better food; reserved seating; and, most important, movies like “The Social Network” and “The King’s Speech” that have become hits based on wit and storytelling, not special effects.
Theaters have long favored younger consumers in part because older moviegoers tend to skip the concession counter, where theaters make most of their money. The imbalance between young and old grew more pronounced over the last decade as theater chains, suffering the after-effects of overbuilding, cut back on maintenance.
Sticky floors and popcorn-strewn aisles have kept even more older people at home. That, and all those texting teenagers, “which is something that adult audiences really find irritating,” said Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research for the National Association of Theater Owners.
"“Our generation really had a love affair with the movies in a profound way,” said Nicholas Kazan, a screenwriter whose credits include “Reversal of Fortune,” which was nominated for an Oscar in 1991. “It was not a fling, not a casual relationship, but a real love affair.”"
The very young still go to the movies more than anyone else — especially on those all-important opening weekends — but distribution executives say they are getting harder to lure in huge numbers.
Social networking has sped up word of mouth, turning teenagers and young adults into more discerning moviegoers — a phenomenon pushed along by rising prices. People age 18 to 24 bought an average of seven tickets per person in 2010, down from eight in 2009.
And the industry is battling a generational quirk. When you can legally stream movies on laptops or order them from video-on-demand services soon after their release — or easily pirate them with high-speed Internet connections, often while they are still in theaters — it makes you less likely to buy a ticket.
Fewer teenagers, then, present an opening. Baby boomers are not their Depression-era parents, who grew up on radio and were very conscious of the price of a ticket. Baby boomers were weaned on movies.
“Our generation really had a love affair with the movies in a profound way,” said Nicholas Kazan, a screenwriter whose credits include “Reversal of Fortune,” which was nominated for an Oscar in 1991. “It was not a fling, not a casual relationship, but a real love affair.”
For many baby boomers, the relationship blossomed in 1969, as the movies belatedly caught up with the counterculture in a wave of films that included “Easy Rider,” “Medium Cool” and “Midnight Cowboy.”
College film societies and an art-house circuit made generational heroes of foreign directors like Ingmar Bergman, whose “Cries and Whispers” had its New York debut in 1972. The “Godfather” series, from Francis Ford Coppola, forged the lexicon for a generation.
But then a younger, more fantasy-oriented generation asserted itself with “Star Wars” in 1977. Hollywood adjusted its output accordingly.
“For me, the ’80s is a dead zone,” said Peter Biskind, a film historian who sees the baby boomers as having been “betrayed and abandoned” by Hollywood in the era of “E.T.,” “Sixteen Candles” and “Top Gun.”
The baby boomers were taking their children to the movies, however, helping to make megahits of films like the “Home Alone” series. Mr. Biskind, himself a baby boomer, said he believed that as the generation’s love affair with movies ended, television stepped in.
“ ‘The Sopranos’ really nailed the boomer generation,” he said. It offered 50-ish viewers all the moody action of a Coppola film without the bother of a trip to the theater.
Slowly, the movie industry is trying to get baby boomers back in seats. You can see it in the bets studios are taking on scripts. Last year, there were two movies, “RED” and “The Expendables,” that featured older actors in action roles.
Helen Mirren, who is 65, was a machine gun-toting assassin in “RED,” which stands for “retired and extremely dangerous.” Sylvester Stallone, who is 64, was a mercenary in “The Expendables.” Both movies were hits.
Just last weekend, “Unknown,” with a 58-year-old Liam Neeson as its action star, was No. 1 at the box office, beating a heavily promoted teenage science fiction movie. More than half of the audience was over 50.
Almost every studio has a movie aimed at an older audience on its current schedule or in development, whether it’s “Dirty Old Men” at Warner Brothers or “Larry Crowne” at Universal Pictures. Fox Searchlight has high hopes for “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” about a group a British retirees who go to India. It stars Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, who are both 76.
Movie theaters have begun to do their part. At ArcLight Cinemas you can now have a grilled ahi tuna sandwich or red pepper Gorgonzola dip.
At AMC Entertainment, the second-largest theater chain in North America after Regal Cinemas, older moviegoers are becoming “an increasingly important part of our plan,” said Stephen A. Colanero, chief marketing officer. He points to efforts to improve adult offerings even if Hollywood doesn’t provide them — Metropolitan Opera simulcasts, for instance.
AMC is also experimenting with seat-side food and cocktail service. The company now operates seven AMC Dine-In Theaters, including three new ones in New Jersey. More are planned.
Studios will continue to tailor the bulk of their releases to younger audiences, and for good reason. In 2010, North Americans ages 12 to 24 made up only 18 percent of the population, but bought 32 percent of the 1.34 billion tickets sold, according to the annual industry snapshot by the Motion Picture Association of America, released on Wednesday.
By contrast, people over 50 made up 32 percent of the population, but bought only 21 percent of the tickets. That is a slight uptick from 2009, when the over-50 audience bought 19 percent of the total tickets sold.
But the actual number of older moviegoers has grown enormously since 1995, the year before boomers started hitting the midcentury mark. Then about 26.8 million people over the age of 50 went to the movies, according to GfK MRI. That number grew to 44.9 million in 2010.
Studios used to deride older viewers as “the once-a-year audience.” They came out once a year, on Christmas Day, to see a movie. Columbia Pictures gave them “Prince of Tides” on Christmas Day in 1991.
It is an attitude, and a reality, that is shifting. “One of the most urgent issues we face as an industry is to figure out how to lure the boomers back to the movie theaters,” said Bob Pisano, president and interim chief executive of the M.P.A.A.
Nancy Perry Graham, editor of AARP The Magazine, says it’s about time. “There is a huge demand that needs to be satisfied, and we’ve been trying to make that point to Hollywood for years,” she said. “I truly believe that Hollywood is finally listening.”