The success of films such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has underlined the big potential of older audiences. John Hazelton explores the burgeoning market and how film-makers and distributors are catering to it.
The guests at the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the dilapidated Indian retirement home that provides the setting for the eponymous hit UK comedy, would probably have a hard time arranging a wake-up call. But the film’s success - a worldwide gross of more than $135m, around 10 times the project’s budget - served as a wake-up call for producers and distributors around the world who had not previously recognised the value of the older cinema-going audience.
“What’s clear now,” says Best Exotic producer Graham Broadbent, “is that it’s a proven demographic. There’s a number of people that are looking for more satisfying, emotional stories compared to the genre stories of wider releases.”
‘There’s a number of people looking for more satisfying, emotional stories compared to the genre stories of wider releases’
Graham Broadbent, producer
Until recently the 50-plus demographic, which in the US makes up a third of the population and 21% of frequent movie-goers (according to Motion Picture Association of America figures), has been underserved.
“Independents have known the value of this audience for a long time,” says Mark Gill, president of Millennium Films, producer of older-skewing action hit The Expendables and upcoming comedy The Big Wedding. “Studios have only recently come around, and the reason is they’ve been abandoned by young males, except for when they have an event movie.”
The baby boomer audience, which is healthier and wealthier than previous older generations, has recently driven the box-office success of several dramatic comedies that feature older casts - beyond The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel - including Quartet, It’s Complicated, Hope Springs and Parental Guidance.
The so-called grey audience has also helped make hits out of action romps such as Red and The Expendables 2 and foreign-language releases such as Amour. It is even credited with boosting the box-office performances of awards season contenders Lincoln, Argo, Life of Pi, Les Misérables and Zero Dark Thirty.
“Their top genres are action and comedy, just as they are for all movie-goers,” reports Kristen Simmons, SVP of the motion picture group at market research company Ipsos. “But they’re more likely to over-index on dramas, sci-fi movies and independent films.”
Producers see seniors as an eager and underexploited sector. “An audience in their fifties and sixties have lived their lives going to the cinema,” points out Quartet producer Stewart Mackinnon. “So when you do make something for the market, this enormous market that keeps replenishing itself, people say, ‘There’s something on at the cinema for us.’”
And many believe that stories about older characters can also attract other demographics. “People around the world like to see movies about family,” says Ed Saxon, producer of upcoming romantic comedy Elsa & Fred starring Shirley MacLaine. “And just about everybody has someone who’s older than them that they can relate to as family.”
Catering to the older audience is attractive to producers and distributors not just because of the box-office results that can be achieved.
Older-skewing films are often cheaper to make (because they are not reliant on pricey effects) and market (they rely more heavily on word of mouth) than younger-skewing titles.
‘An audience in their fifties and sixties have lived their lives going to the cinema’
Stewart Mackinnon, producer, Quartet
And they can make use of a sizeable pool of older actors such as Best Exotic stars Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy. “Like everybody else, that generation of actors is still working and healthier than they might have been a generation ago,” says Kevin Loader, producer of the upcoming Le Weekend, whose cast is headed by Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan. “And a lot of them have had quite long film careers, so they have names and reputations and bankability.”
Older-skewing films can also be a boon to the exhibition sector since they help to fill seats on weekdays when cinemas would otherwise be under-utilised.
How vital the older audience stays over the long term remains to be seen. It will certainly grow: the US Census Bureau projects the 65-plus population of the US will more than double between 2012 and 2060, from 43.1 million to 92 million. But its per capita spending power could decrease.
For the time being, though, producers and distributors the world over seem likely to pay increasing heed to the tastes and habits of the senior audience. Indeed, one likely upshot will be a Best Exotic Marigold Hotel sequel. Producer Graham Broadbent says that if he, producing partner Peter Czernin, director John Madden and screenwriter Ol Parker can find the right story, “we’d love to do it again and have those characters carry on. And if we couldn’t, we wouldn’t. But I think we’ve probably found a story that would be fun to tell so we’re in discussions with Fox.”
Case study: THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL
Graham Broadbent does not claim to have foreseen the future of senior cinema when he began work on The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
“I’m not sure we approached it with a clear idea there must be a baby boomer audience for this film,” says the London-based producer. “But we thought it was a strong concept and something we could fill with some really wonderful acting talent from the UK.”
Initial attempts to set up the project, developed by Broadbent’s Blueprint Pictures and Los Angeles-based Participant Media, with an international sales company (discussions were reportedly held with Summit and Pathé) were stymied by the 2008-09 financial crisis.
Some time later, Fox Searchlight, on the lookout for older-skewing properties, came in to finance the film - reportedly budgeted at around $12m - 50/50 with Participant. In return, the studio took worldwide rights to a comedy directed by John Madden and boasting a cast headed by Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy.
In the UK, Fox gave the film a wide release in February 2012 and attracted an audience of mostly 35-and-older cinema-goers. “Our home audience was a little younger,” suggests Broadbent, because the stars were seen in the UK as “national treasures” with broad appeal. The UK gross of $32.3m contributed to a hugely impressive overall international take of $89m.
In the US, Fox went for a platform release starting in early May. The studio’s aggressive US marketing campaign incorporated advance screenings arranged in conjunction with women’s social organisation the Red Hat Society and the AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons). The marketing attracted an older audience - mostly 50-plus - than in the UK and another big box-office take of $46.4m.
The box-office performances, Broadbent says, “surpassed all our expectations”.
CASE STUDY: HOPE SPRINgs
Meryl Streep was the driver when it came to bringing last year’s Hope Springs, a comedic yet frank look at a decades-old marriage that has lost its spark, to the screen. Streep - who has starred in four $100m-plus films since turning 60 in 2009 - stuck with the material until the project was set up at Mandate Pictures with David Frankel (director of Streep-starrer The Devil Wears Prada) at the helm and Tommy Lee Jones and Steve Carell co-starring.
In pitching the project to Sony’s Columbia Pictures - which distributed in the US, with Mandate parent Lionsgate handling international sales - producers Todd Black and Guymon Casady stressed the comedic approach.
The team, says Casady, “made a point of emphasising that it wasn’t going to be an earnest look at a marriage”.
“And it wasn’t going be a diatribe on age and ageism,” adds Black. “There’s a way to appeal to an older audience without making them feel horrible about being older.”
The film was set for an August release in the US as counter programming to effects-heavy tentpoles aimed at the youth audience (the slot had previously worked well for Streep’s Julie & Julia). And Sony developed a female-skewed, adult-targeted marketing campaign that included a special layer of media designed to reach older couples.
As well as television and outdoor advertising, the campaign incorporated promotions in shopping malls, coffee shops and women’s fitness centres and a publicity push on upmarket national public radio.
To help generate word of mouth, Sony worked with the magazine of the influential AARP (which has more than 37 million members aged over 50) to set up a 20-market screening programme. And online, the studio worked with HouseParty.com website, 2,500 of whose members hosted ‘Ladies Night In’ events connected to the film.
As of Jan 27, Hope Springs had grossed $112.9m worldwide.