Lily Tomlin picked a great year to debut her indie film “Grandma,” which begins its limited national run Friday, and oddly enough that title shouldn’t hurt, either.
The Sony Pictures Classics release starring the 76-year-old comedian is the latest indie release this year to defy the youth-is-golden Hollywood norm. This year’s specialty box office has been dominated by movies aimed at mature audiences, films that tell stories that speak directly to Baby Boomers and star actors who have been fan favorites for decades.
“The Woman in Gold,” an art world drama starring septuagenarian Helen Mirren from The Weinstein Company, and Fox Searchlight’s “Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” the sequel to John Madden‘s tale of British retirees in India, are 2015’s top-grossing limited releases with around $33 million apiece.
Meanwhile, edgy, quirky favorites from Sundance and other festivals and the gritty demanding films that frequently top the art-house circuit have taken a back seat to “Mr. Holmes,” which stars 77-year-old Ian McKellan and has grossed $17 million for Roadside Attraction. “Love & Mercy,” a drama about former Beach Boy Brian Wilson, has also hit a Baby Boomer-driven $12.5 million for Roadside.
And that trend is already has studios rethinking their plans for older-skewing films. Broad Green Pictures had intended to go with a limited release for “A Walk in the Woods,” its adaptation of Bill Bryson’s best-selling travel memoir that stars 79-year-old Robert Redford and 76-year-old Nick Nolte. But it became the company’s first wide release when buzz and sponsorship offers poured in. “We realized that we had a shot at a much bigger audience than we originally thought,” Broad Green distribution chief Travis Reid told TheWrap.
He was right. The comedy, made for about $8 million, has taken in more than $21 million in just over two weeks. That sort of return on investment isn’t unusual for indie fare aimed at older audiences.
Seniors have become a key ingredient in Hollywood’s recipe for success. The number of tickets sold to moviegoers between the ages of 40 and 59 hit all-time highs last year, and the 60-plus crowd increased at the same time that sales to young adults declined, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.
Blockbusters “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Jurassic World” aren’t affected by these film’s success. But hipper, more typical art-house offerings seem to be hurting.
Neither of the two buzziest films out of the Sundance Film Festival, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” and “Dope,” were able to break out at the box office. The same has been true for Noah Baumbach‘s “While We’re Young,” “Diary of a Teenage Girl” and others.
The lone exception this year: A24’s sexy cyber saga “Ex Machina,” which has taken in $25 million domestically with a mainly younger crowd.
While young audiences drive the blockbusters, they are far less reliable week in and week out. While mature movies won’t generate blockbuster grosses, the dependability of the older set coupled with smaller budgets makes profitability far more likely. “Second Best Exotic Marigold Htoel” cost $10 million and “Woman in Gold” was made for $11 million, less than a third of what they’ve grossed already.
“The safest bet in movies today is a well-made movie aimed at mature audiences that is executed and marketed correctly,” said Broad Green’s Reid.
Kevin Kline, just a sprout at 67, joined De Niro, Freeman and Douglas in last year’s “Last Vegas.” Derided by some critics as a geriatric version of “The Hangover,” it nonetheless went on to become CBS Films’ highest-grossing film ever, earning $64 million and spawning a sequel that will arrive in 2016.
Fox Searchlight distribution chief Frank Rodriguez, who oversaw the “Second Best Exotic” rollout, hopes the trend continues. In December, his company will release the ironically titled “Youth,” starring Jane Fonda and Michael Caine.
“Most companies look for the best stories from the best filmmakers, regardless of age. You find the right talent, you market it well and you’re going to have a successful movie,” he said. “Or you can put Helen Mirren in it, and you’ll be fine, too.”