Alien movies, gross-out comedies, teen vampire thrillers, and films starring former wrestlers may appear to be the mainstay of Hollywood these days but recent successes of movies like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Quartet and The King's Speech shows a gentle change is afoot. In the US there are now an increasing number of filmgoers over the age of 40 visiting the cinema on a frequent and regular basis. At the same time, those under the age of 25 seem to be abandoning multiplexes. A similar trend seems to be taking place in the UK, where cinemagoers over the age of 45 increased by 28 percent in 2011.
In Australia, films that are skewing older have a better ratio to the worldwide box office than normal films
Many in the industry point to new media as the reason for the slump in younger cinemagoers. Those under 25 are now more than ever relying on internet downloads and DVDs to watch films. They also, it seems, don't have the emotional connection with going to the cinema as their parents and grandparents once did and still do. Not having grown up with cinema as a valid form of a night out, under 25s are instead used to having instant access to what they want to watch, when they want, thanks to video-on-demand sites such as Netflix. And they'd rather watch these films on the couch or in their bedroom than from inside of a movie theatre.
Troy Lum, the managing director of Hopscotch, agrees. As he tells SBS Film, “With a younger audience there is a lot more competition for their entertainment dollar. There's social media, computer games, a tonne of other stuff that means movie-going is not necessarily the number one thing on a young person's mind, which is not surprising considering the age of the movie-going experience as a night out – it's quite an old thing. There's not that many forms of entertainment that last for such a long period of time. Younger audiences aren't culturally in tune with going to the cinema as older audiences. Old audiences are very much used to the date night and a night out being a night at the movies, so in that sense there's more maturity in that marketplace.”
For older moviegoers, the appeal of going to the cinema is not just about the film as it is about the whole experience. As Kate McCurdy of Sharmill Films tells us, “Older audiences are looking for a good investment at the cinema, in that they want a satisfying experience including a great film, as well as the feeling that they're being well looked after as a patron at the cinema. This is something that needs to be as important to the cinema and distributor as ticket sales. Older audiences, particularly those who frequently attend the Met Opera screenings, are among the most discerning and appreciate the extra effort cinemas make to provide an experience as close to seeing live opera in a theatre as possible with dedicated ushers, refreshments and programmes.”
Paul Dravet, the managing director of the Hayden Orpheum, is well in tune to such needs of his patrons. “From the mid-'80s, we took on the restoration and extension of the historic Orpheum in Cremorne from one screen to six screens,” he tells SBS Film. This restoration included keeping many of the original art-deco features intact, having uniformed ushers, dark-velvet interiors and period features to remind cinemagoers of a time gone past, as well as to distinguish it from a multiplex. These features along with the Orpheum's film programming were done “In order to appeal to an older demographic given that it has been so undersold in Sydney,” Dravet says. “We are consistently one of the most successful cinemas in Australia as we have already long marketed successfully to this age group.”
While older moviegoers may have not been well served in the US and UK markets until recently, it seems in Australia at least, it is a different story. As Troy Lum tells us, “There's always been a very strong older audience here in Australia. It's been a territory that's been renowned to get great results from that audience. This dates back to one of the very first films I released in 1998 called Waking Ned Devine. In Australia, films that are skewing older have a better ratio to the worldwide box office than normal films. What I mean by this is, normally Australia may represent 10 percent of the global box office whereas films that skew towards older audiences we can do 20-30 percent. As a film buyer, I've always been aware of supplying films to the older market – that's why we've done films like Mrs. Henderson Presents. And when you see results of films like The Queen and Quartet, we've always been very mindful of it.”
While older moviegoers are catered for in Australia, whether there's been an increased number of them heading to the cinema recently is up for debate.
Samantha Philip of AHL (who run Event Cinemas and Greater Union) has seen a rise in older moviegoers. “Cinema for the over 60s certainly is on the rise,” she says. “We have seen an 8 percent increase in uptake on membership to our Seniors Club Online club in the last 12 months.” Philip believes this is because, “There are plenty of good quality films being made that appeal to this audience – such as Quartet and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – as well as the popularity of older actors such as Judi Dench and Bill Nighy. Of course, this is all combined with an ageing population in Australia.”
Kate McCurdy also agrees. “Yes, there has been a definite rise in older cinema patrons, particularly in the audiences for the Met Opera and National Theatre Live in cinemas, as well as our art-house and foreign language film titles, for example such as You Will Be My Son and Le Havre.” McCurdy also cites the “record attendance” for the Alan Bennett play People that was recorded live at London's National Theatre. “People grossed over $178,000 at the box office at an average of only two sessions per cinema,” she says.
Lum, however, isn't convinced there's been a sudden rush of older moviegoers at the cinema. “It isn't so much that older audiences are suddenly going to the cinema in droves, it's more that they're starved of the entertainment,” he says. “That's why it looks like there's a big growth in that sector but I just think there's less films being made for a particular group of people so when those films come along they're being seen in bigger numbers.”
What they all agree on is that at the end of the day, it's the quality of the films being made that matter. “It's not so much the genre of performing arts or its method of delivery, whether live or captured live at the theatre, but the content, moreover the quality of the content that attracts audiences, whether young or old,” McCurdy says.
The story especially matters most to older moviegoers who aren't guided by form over content. “The big issue that older audiences have with a lot of the studio films for younger audiences is that there's no story – it's all explosions, special effects and a lot of violence. They bemoan the lack of storytelling. So what we're looking for with older audiences is not needing so much an older protagonist, although that helps, but having a really strong story.”
So while franchises like the Fast and Furious will always have a place in Hollywood, the increasing power of older audiences means that the art of good storytelling will continue to be in demand, which is good news not just for one age group, but for all.