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Ageing, succession, death … and box office: movies for the over 40s and 50s are tapping an eager audience, but mostly in arthouses. The older demographic is under-catered in the multiplex mainstream, as some in the movie business tell Andrew L. Urban.

Themes and issues that deal with ageing are explored in several new films – over a dozen this year alone (see list below), but mostly in the arthouse market; yet the few mainstream films aimed at 40+ or even 50+ audiences have done rather well, suggesting this ageing audience may be underserved.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel took $21.4 million, The Descendants grossed $15.2 million and Hope Springs sprang the box office for $4.7 million; even the crossover film, The Way, cashed in some $2.1 million, a narrow release opening on just 35 screens around the country.

There are over 10 million Australians between 40 and 99; of them, 4.49 million are between 40 and 54 and 3.44 million are between 55 and 69. The 50 – 59 year olds total 2.74 million. Baby boomers are booming indeed …

The youth market is actually smaller: the key movie consuming demographic of 15 – 24 totals just 2.86 million – just a fraction more than the 50 – 59 demo and there are 1.2 million more between 60 and 64, making the combined group of 50 – 64 over 3 million (ABS sensus, 2011). 

The infamous Bette Davis quip about old age not being for sissies is trotted out as relevant, most recently by Pauline Collins’ character, the ageing opera singer, Cissy, in Dustin Hoffman’s directing debut, Quartet. (Quartet opens in Australia on December 26, 2012).

"usually treated as comedic punctuation marks"

The memory lapses, the painful hips awaiting replacement, the wishful thoughts about sex and the deterioration of the senses are usually treated as comedic punctuation marks, a sugary way to tell the truth to those who already know it. It is the truth and that in part makes it funny – and poignant. As comedian and writer Stephen Fry has put it so well, the raison d’etre of comedy, its saving grace, is that we can simultaneously laugh at something and take it seriously.

In both The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (UK, 2011) and in And If We All Lived Together (Fr, 2011), a group of elderly people arrange to share a home in retirement. 
Maggie Smith turns up in both the Marigold Hotel and in the classy Beecham House retirement home for musicians (Quartet) joining other opera singers, notably played by Billy Connolly, Tom Courtenay and Pauline Collins. 

As if to emphasise the popularity of ageing musicians as a sort of sub genre, Performance (aka A Late Quartet [US, 2012],) focuses on a renowned string quartet struggling to stay together after 25 years when their cellist (Christopher Walken) reveals he has early stage Parkinson’s disease. The film also stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and Imogen Poots (opens March 7).

“There is a growing market of grown ups who are past the young child caring age,” says Michael Selwyn, CEO of Paramount Pictures Australia and (until last month) President of the Motion Picture Distributors Association of Australia, “who want to see films dealing with the second half of their lives. There is almost a revolt against films in which every character is 25 and gorgeous. Marigold stunned everyone with its success – and it’s worth noting it isn’t just a comedy. It’s quite real, and Quartet is like that.”

In these films, says Selwyn, “we see the characters concerned with their own lives, not living through their children. I think there is an enormous potential here …that market (over 40s) is underserved in mainstream cinema.”

"a huge potential market"

Natalie Miller of Sharmill Films in Melbourne also believes the 50+ age group represents “a huge potential market; it’s probably under-catered, as a film like the Marigold Hotel demonstrates.” Miller’s arthouse cinema, the Nova in Carlton, has a younger, university-sourced audience base, but she distributes a wide range of films, including the French ‘aged’ themed drama, You Will Be My Son. 

For one thing, says Miller, older people probably have more time and she cites the enormous success of the New York Met opera films which draw huge crowds at 11am on Thursdays, for example. (Miller distributes the films that record the performances and are treated as special event screenings in Australia.)

On the NSW coast north of Sydney at Avoca Beach, the historic Picture Theatre caters for the opposite market to the Nova; 90% or so of their audiences are over 40. Norman and Beth Hunter who run the cinema take their own children to the Hoyts at nearby Erina for mainstream fare, because their own cinema offers “quality experiences for discerning adults” – which includes the New York Met films, David Helfgott playing the piano and lunch events featuring a suitable movie, such as The Intouchables.

“These events are planned to build friendships in the community,” says Beth Hunter. “We discard a lot of films … but we were inundated with phone calls to show The Sessions,” she says, the film based on the story of 36 year old San Francisco poet and journalist Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes), who has been confined to an iron lung since childhood polio. He decides to lose his virginity before he dies. With the help of his therapist Laura (Blake Lindsley) and his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), he contacts Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt), a professional sex surrogate.

In Trouble with the Curve (US, 2012), Clint Eastwood plays an ageing baseball coach with a dysfunctional relationship with his daughter (Amy Adams). His need for her help mends the relationship.

"about a man facing the outrageous fortunes of old age"

In Robot & Frank (UK, 2012), Frank Langella plays an ageing jewel thief whose son buys him a robot to look after him at home; it’s only slightly futuristic, but the story isn’t about the robotic future of our households but about a man facing the outrageous fortunes of old age. It was released on just 20 screens on November 15, 2012, with a modest advertising budget, and took $73,027 in its opening week. That’s a screen average of $3,651, which is higher than the opening week screen averages for the action drama, Alex Cross, aimed at the mainstream demographic, which averaged $3,014 in its opening week (on 165 screens).

The subject of succession is explored in two French films; the documentary Step Up to the Plate (Fr, 2012), and the aforementioned drama You Will Be My Son (Fr, 2012). In the former, a famous French chef, Michel Bras, prepares to hand over his cuisine to his son Sébastien. This is in France and Michel has 3 Michelin stars, so it’s like inheriting the crown jewels and there is much at stake. 

In the latter, it’s also dead serious: it’s a wine estate whose future is in doubt when the long standing manager (Patrick Chesnais) falls ill and the ageing owner (Neils Arestrup) doesn’t trust his son (Laurent Deutch) to take over the winemaking business.

But these are both strictly arthouse films, as is the marvellous Barrymore, with Christopher Plummer in the title role, as once celebrated American actor John Barrymore, a member of one of Hollywood's best known multi-generational theatrical dynasties. He is 60, no longer a leading box office star and he struggles with alcohol abuse, reckoning with the ravages of his life of excess. He has rented a grand old theatre to rehearse for a backer's audition to raise money for a revival of his 1920 Broadway triumph in Richard III. In between rehearsing his lines, he looks back on the highs and lows of his amazing career and remarkable life. It is a tour de force.

"poses a pertinent and heartbreaking moral question about the courage of profound love"

Perhaps it’s significant in this context that Michael Haneke’s Amour (opens in Australia in February 2013) won the Palme d’Or at Cannes 2012, as well as sweeping the 2012 European Film Awards this month (Dec. 2012) as Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor & Actress. Arguably the most acute and determined exploration of the ravages of illness in old age, the film poses a pertinent and heartbreaking moral question about the courage of profound love. Starring Jean-Louis Trintignan and Emmanuelle Reva, it is anything but escapist entertainment; it’s mature, confronting but truthful cinematic rewards outweigh the sombre theme.

There are plenty of great stories to be told (in Australia, too – see tongue in cheek suggestion box at right) that engage the over 40s and 50s, who have the time and the money to patronise cinemas – and cinemas are filling their programs with alternative programming to cater for them, ranging from live music to authors on stage and movie combos with themed food and beverage. 

‘Coming of age’ films deal with issues of adolescence; ‘coming of aged’ films deal with the issues of ageing – and they’re not for sissies. By the way, Brad Pitt turns 49 this month (Dec. 2012).

The Descendants – Fox Searchlight, 12/1/12 
Late Bloomers - Palace, 23/2/12
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – Roadshow, 22/3/2012 
The Way – Umbrella, 26/4/2012 
Bathing Franky – Titan View, 14/6/2012
Elena - Palace, 21/6/2012
And If We All Lived Together – Madman, 26/7/2012
Hope Springs - Roadshow, 23/8/2012
Barrymore – Sharmill, 25/8/2012
You Will Be My Son – Sharmill, 1/11/2012
The Sessions - 20th Century Fox, 8/11/2012
Robot & Frank – Sony, 15/11/2012
Step Up to the Plate – Curious, 29/11/2012
Trouble with the Curve – Roadshow, 6/12/2012
Quartet – Paramount 26/12/2012

(From left) Robot & Frank, (center) Hope Springs, (at right) Bathing Franky

Published December 13, 2012

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Maggie Smith & Pauline Collins in Quartet (Opens Dec 26, 2012)


Some of our most successful films could be reworked for older audiences who loved the originals:

Crocoldile Dundee
Romeold + Juliet
Bad Old Bubby
Strictly Baldroom
The Year My Hip Broke


Pierre Richard & Jane Fonda in And If We All Lived Together

Neils Arestrup & Laurent Deutch in You Will Be My Son

Judi Dench in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Christopher Plummer as Barrymore

Tommy Lee Jones & Meryl Streep in Hope Springs

The Sessions

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