Getting the grown-ups in is becoming a healthy obsession for distributors and theatres. Venice film festival head Marco Mueller celebrates the change in Screen this week (See Venice buzz, p16-20): 'Just four years ago, to think that Universal would put an opening film in competition (Atonement) ... or that Warner Bros would put a Brad Pitt-produced starrer in competition (The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford) would seem unthinkable.'

There's no arguing with that - to a greater or lesser extent, Hollywood is increasingly interested in supporting smaller films aimed at an older, and by implication more discerning, audience.

This week the UK Film Council heralded the success of a handful of foreign-language films in Britain as signs of success in mobilising the mature market. But reaching adult audiences is not a neat, one-dimensional discussion. Too often, it is wrapped in snobbery. Older audiences are held up as the antithesis of what has been condescendingly called the 'popcorn classes'.

Knowledgeable lovers of film are a vital part of the industry but as a business growth proposition they don't really offer a great model. Cineastes, by definition, go to the theatres already - the challenge is to attract those that stay away. And 'mature' is not a simple demographic label.

Research suggests it is possible, to a large extent, to identify and service what has been the core teen audience. In a wide number of cultures, going to the flicks is an activity in its own right - some studies suggest the experience outweighs what is actually being shown.

As we grow older, we need a strong reason to go out and such reasons vary widely. Some of the discussion about maturing audiences suggests there is some kind of linear, Darwinian progression from the bucket-of-cola blockbuster to the arthouse. That's true of parents, who enter the deafening, primary-coloured alternate universe of children's films. But for the rest, there needs to be a reason for choosing the cinema over an ever-increasing set of lifestyle options.

Theatres often do a good impression of making that choice as unappetising as possible. From screening times to foyer layout, it is too evident that they are geared to selling concession stand E-numbers to adolescents. Big efforts are being made by major chains, of course, but there's a long way to go.

And let's not forget that arthouse cinemas are often every bit as unwelcoming. Some can be depressingly hushed and reverential.

A French cinema owner was articulating a view shared by a small but significant minority when he said, at a European exhibitors' conference last year, that he detested having to include customers ignorant of the great auteurs in his programming decisions.

Theatres need to be welcoming and arguably should be looking for a symbiotic relationship with home entertainment rather than one of animosity.

We should be under no illusion, it is DVD (and to an extent television) that has brought 40-pluses back into contact with film. Exploiting that rekindled interest requires a shift of attitude and the reasons are clear.

This summer has seen wall-to-wall mega-blockbusters filling an unprecedented number of seats. Now the questions need to be asked - about the profitability of such monsters, particularly where they have been crashing into each other in such a tight schedule; about the sustainability of the strategy given the uncomfortably finite number of potential sequels, adaptations and remakes; and about how a film business so heavily reliant on scale can increase its appeal to older audiences who make up an increasing proportion of the population in developed nations.

The business needs to reach well-understood, specific audiences effectively, rather than the hit-and-hope of mass appeal. The biggest issue remains distribution but there are huge challenges for marketing and exhibition.

A free fondant fancy and a nice cup of tea won't cut it.