Hollywood learns to grow up

As young crowds drift away from cinemas, producers are targeting the 'Back To The Future' generation

The moment of truth came midway through this summer's popcorn movie The Expendables when Sylvester Stallone made the dash for the plane that was going to whisk him away for safety.

For a few moments, Stallone looked more like an elderly man running after a No 22 bus than he did an action star. When the lights came on at the end of the screening, the packed preview audience which had been lapping-up his stunts looked around and realised they were almost as old as he was.

"Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I am 64," the Beatles ask in their famous song. The answer, as far as Hollywood action pics and their fans are concerned, is an emphatic yes. Stallone is indeed 64. Age hasn't withered him at all as far as international box-office is concerned. Research cited by a Los Angeles-based film trade magazine this week revealed that in the US in 2009, "the 40-and-up demo comprised 37 per cent of the US moviegoing public, while purchasing 32 per cent of the tickets."

Exhibitors often talk about the "ageing baby-boom audience" in the UK, too, as the one part of the cinemagoing market still ripe for expansion. In Britain, between 1997 and 2007, the number of cinema tickets sold to over-45s doubled, from 19 million to around 38 million. In other words, filmgoing is increasingly a pastime of choice for the middle-aged and elderly.

Hollywood has always had at least half an eye on older audience members. That's why, over the years, we've been treated to films such as Driving Miss Daisy and On Golden Pond which showcase venerable stars. A few years ago, when Stephen Frears' The Queen was released in British cinemas, audience research showed that 60 per cent of those who went to see the film were 55 or over."

The difference now is that the films aimed at the older cinemagoers are no longer genteel, sedate costume dramas. We're the Back To The Future Generation. There is a new tribe of cinemagoers in their 40s and beyond who love to go and see exactly the same kind of movies they watched when they were teenagers. The same stars who appeared in those movies are still headlining the films today. That's why we've been watching Dame Helen Mirren and Morgan Freeman kick ass in Red (which has made around $150m worldwide £96m), Dolph and Sly still causing mayhem after all these years in The Expendables (worldwide gross $266m) and Clint Eastwood rehashing his vigilante persona in Gran Torino (worldwide gross $269m).

Alongside the action flicks which whisk the 40-something spectators back to their testosterone-filled adolescences, there are also now plenty of very soppy romantic dramas which invoke memories of all those Molly Ringwald movies that teenagers liked to watch in the 80s as well. The vast outpouring of grief in the media when John Hughes died in August 2009 revealed just how obsessed the Back to the Future generation still is with the era of Pretty In Pink and The Breakfast Club.

Cultural commentators and film critics queued up to pay tribute to Hughes. The encomiums were entirely out of proportion with his actual achievements as a film-maker, which were relatively modest. (We may all have liked Ferris Bueller's Day Off but doesn't mean its director was the new Orson Welles.)

John Hughes is gone but his spirit lives on in the films currently being targeted at the Back To The Future generation. Julia Roberts' new vehicle Eat Pray Love is Hughes-style fodder for the middle-aged. (Hollywood myth has it Molly Ringwald turned down the role in Pretty Woman that made Roberts a major star in the first place.) Todd Phillips' recent road movie Due Date, starring Robert Downey Jnr and Zach Galifianakis, has been excoriated by critics for blatantly ripping off John Hughes' Planes, Trains And Automobiles (1987). That, though, was presumably the point. The hope must have been that all those younger cinemagoers who went to see the Hughes film in the 80s would be lured out again to see Phillips' affectionate pastiche.

There are obvious reasons why the Hollywood studios are training so much attention on the Back To The Future generation. Younger potential cinemagoers are an altogether more slippery group. They're busy playing videogames. They're liable to stream movies online rather than to pay at the box-office to watch them. They're too obsessed with the latest apps on their phones or the newest posts on their social networking sites to pay attention to which films are screening at their local cinemas. Maybe they don't have the money either. Cinemagoing is becoming an increasingly expensive pastime. Exhibitors slap on a 40 per cent surcharge for films screened on 3D.

Of course, it would be a vast over-exaggeration to suggest that Hollywood is ignoring the younger demographic. The teen audience remains the most lucrative part of the market. "Audiences have aged dramatically and movies generally haven't, Producer Bill Mechanic, head of Pandemonium Films ( and a former Chairman of Fox), recently told Variety.

"The target audience for most of the studios is still 15 to 25, but that audience has dropped off a bit."

Marketing jargon is changing in Hollywood. The cliché of choice among studio marketeers is now "the four-quadrant movie". A "four-quadrant" movie may sound like an exercise in geometry but it is a film aimed at everyone – young, old, males, females. The problem with "four quadrant" films is that they tend to be very expensive indeed to produce: $100m or more. So there are fewer of them. This has left a gap in the market for the independents making marginally less expensive "two- or three-quadrant" films. An indie effort such as The Expendables, budgeted at around $70m, much of it raised in foreign pre-sales, is a case in point. There are both cultural and economic reasons why so many movies are now being aimed at the Back To The Future generation. The film-makers producing them will probably have grown up in the 80s. That's when their creative sensibilities were formed. It's easier to use an 80's stars (a Stallone or a Willis) than to try to create one from scratch. The 80s stars have weathered remarkably well and their asking price has come down.

Middle-aged and elderly cinemagoers, meanwhile, are facing a time of extreme economic turbulence. Maybe that's the main reason the Back to The Future generation is so keen to escape into movies that remind them of their teenage years, before they had to bear the deadening weight of adult responsibility.

True Grit

A chance for Jeff Bridges to step into John Wayne's stirrups as one-eyed US Marshal Rooster Cogburn. Older cinemagoers will relish the experience of a rough and tumble shoot-em-up western of a kind that is rarely made these days. Directed by the Coen Brothers. Out 14 January.

The Dilemma

Fortysomething filmgoers remember Winona Ryder with huge affection from her Heathers heyday and will be delighted that she is making a comeback. She takes a starring role in this comedy about infidelity, directed by Ron Howard. Out 21 January.

Morning Glory

Roger Michell's media satire about a morning television show provides plum roles for Harrison Ford and Diane Keaton. Out 21 January.

The Beaver

Back in the 1980s, Mel Gibson was an Aussie action star feted for his performances in Mad Max and Lethal Weapon. He has earned considerable notoriety since then but Jodie Foster's comedy, in which she also stars, may help his rehabilitation. Out 11 February.

Fair Game

Doug Liman's thriller, based on the memoirs of the CIA agent Valerie Plame, will invoke memories of all those politically themed dramas and thrillers made in Hollywood in the 1970s and '80s. Starring Sean Penn and Naomi Watts. Out 4 March.

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