Film Fund-amentals: The Gray Zone

It’s official. Hollywood has discovered old people. They’re right there in the front row of the theater. Well, not the front row. They tend to sit more toward the back, near the exit door. It’s closer to the restrooms, you know.

Yep, the hot scoop from the New York Times is that Hollywood is looking to focus on the aging Baby Boomer audience. Well, sort of. The 40+ club is not the audience for any major movie that has a production budget of more than $60 million. But virtually every recent low-budget indie film (in other words, almost every movie that dominated the recent Academy Award show) received strong support from the gray hair league.

Though the New York Times is just now discovering this trend, the topic was presented last November at Variety‘s Future of Film Summit. During a panel discussion, Bill Mechanic from Pandemonium Films noted the irony that  audiences have aged and movies have not. Personally, I can’t help but notice that the more the audience ages, the more most movies seem headed toward the kindergarten zone. So the idea that there might be a growing market that is vastly underserved goes without saying.

In certain respects, we’re watching the wheel of history complete a unique cycle. In the mid-1960s, the Baby Boom generation was entering their teenage-to-early-adult years, and the generation gap was hitting the box office like a tidal wave. Most Hollywood movies of that period were basically weird holdovers from the Eisenhower days, and these flicks were not clicking with the young audience. Foreign films and old American movies were the rage on most college campuses, almost all of which had extremely active film societies that floated their programs with an easy grace between Jean-Luc Godard and Humphrey Bogart. A new sensibility was beginning to form, and as the youth movement began to dominate the market, movies were about to undergo a radical series of changes.

But by the 1980s, the Baby Boomers were busy pursuing careers (and booming their own babies) and everything changed yet again. The next wave of the new youth market was taking over and this audience was quite different. Many of them did not care for subtitles, and they largely viewed old black-and-white films as some kind of indicator that their parents had poor vision. They also were not too picky about narrative structure and characterizations as long as the movie maintained enough bang for the buck. Increasingly, movies were designed for an audience that seemingly had a short attention span, no basic curiosity about the world and pretty much no memory of anything prior to lunch.

This is the basic model for most big-budget movies made today. Meanwhile, members of the Baby Boom generation are now entering their Golden Years (and as a member of this generation I will be the first to admit that I have no damn idea what is so Golden about them). Many Boomers are finished with their careers (or their careers are finished with them) and done with family demands (or with families, period). They suddenly have some free time and (if the pensions are good) a little bit of money to spend. So heck, let’s all go to the movies!

Granted, this theory of the newly emerging (and very gray) Boomer market makes the audience sound like the zombies in the original Dawn of the Dead (you know, where they keep returning to the mall in pursuit of some dim memory of past happiness). I even know a few young theater managers who undoubtedly share this view. But the real question is the potential effect this will have on the box office. Especially since there appears to be a drop in the younger market. Though the demographic data is still a bit thin, there appears to be a drop taking place with younger and senior audiences, while the 40-to-49 market appears to be picking up a slight but steady increase (well, actually the numbers don’t really pick up, they just don’t drop as far – there is an overall loss of audience going on). Though the current National Association of Theater Owners report emphasizes an increase in revenue due to the higher cost of tickets for 3D movies, overall the American theater market is down (NATO is estimating a 5 percent drop, some other estimates go as high as 20 percent).

Which is why some folks in Hollywood are looking at the “mature” audience. Despite their more subdued attendance pattern and rude refusal to load up with junk at the concession stand, the middle-aged audience is proving to be a reliable market. Oh sure, they’re not about to watch a movie 20 times over like a pack of teenage girls at Titanic or something, but they are a steady date. More important, they are extremely likely to go to the kind of movies made by indie filmmakers. This is rapidly becoming one of the most important negotiating chips that an indie artist has when dealing with the suits.

The reasons are remarkably simple. The older audience wants a good storyline rather than a flimsy excuse for lots of CGI. In truth, much of this audience isn’t particularly impressed with CGI (unless it is discreetly used as in The King’s Speech and True Grit). They have a greater appreciation for honest-to-god actors (which may explain why Megan Fox does not have much in the way of a future career). Even more problematic (for Hollywood), this audience isn’t all that much into high concepts and acts as if they expect a movie to have some relationship to reality. A few years ago, some folks in Hollywood were calling these people losers. Now they are the “new” viewers.

They are also the indie cinema’s best hope from a marketing standpoint. It’s about time that AARP set up a production unit.