Diversity is still the hot cause in Hollywood, but here’s one side of the issue that’s been under-reported: There’s growing evidence that Hollywood is ignoring its “senior audience” in terms of marketing, casting and choice of subject matter. And new studies have dramatized the harmful impact.
That’s one reason why Clint Eastwood has a big smile on his face these days. At a time when tentpole releases aimed at the younger demo are fading quickly, his new film Sully likely will gross $150 million domestic. Clint, age 86, made his hit with an older star (Tom Hanks, 60) for an older audience (80% over the age of 35). Fully 20% of the audience turned out principally because Clint was the director.
Hollywood likes to think “young,” which is ironic since we are about to witness a presidential debate involving the two oldest candidates in debate history. Still, in terms of TV and movies, consider the data: The sector of the film audience age 50 or older — we’re talking 25% of filmgoers — is actually buying more tickets than it did a decade ago. In contrast, male filmgoers between 18 and 24 are purchasing 20% fewer tickets. Further, a new study from USC and Humana indicates that only 11% of the characters who populate film and TV are age 60 and older compared with 18.5% of the actual population. Google is developing new algorithms to identify and quantify gender and age speaking time for characters in films and TV. The prevalence of “negative stereotypes” among old people is having an adverse influence on the mental health of senior citizens, the report declares. In other words, the seniors are depressed at the manner in which they are depicted — or ignored.
So that’s the ultimate bummer: Not only is Hollywood disdaining its most loyal customers but it’s also portraying them in a negative way. And let’s take this a step further: If you’re out there talking with top media executives, you learn that ageism is more prevalent today than at any time within memory. The careers of writers and filmmakers hit the wall by 50, despite a symbolic victory a few years ago in a class action suit. Talent agencies like CAA and WME start easing out their agents by that age, except for the top revenue producers. Ageism even affects the top management elite: Fox’s Jim Gianapolis, 65, Lionsgate’s Rob Friedman, 66, and Viacom’s Tom Dooley 64, are high-profile examples of seniors who have lately been consigned to emeritus status, and the Viacom exodus surely will add to that list. Even the ubiquitous Jeffrey Katzenberg, 65, is seeking new pastures. Does ageism represent sound policy? Some industry veterans believe that Hollywood’s best minds are now sitting on the sidelines — leaders like Bob Daly, Michael Eisner and Dick Cook. Two years ago, Warner Bros made a dubious decision in ousting Alan Horn, age 70, but he was soon recruited by Disney’s perceptive Bob Iger.
Yet the beat goes on for the young demo. Jeff Bewkes, CEO of Time Warner, came out loud and clear this week that TNT and TBS would revise their agendas to pursue a younger audience – one that relates more directly to social media. In film and TV, the younger demo is a tempting target because the kids faithfully respond to fusillades of advertising and show up on opening day. Senior filmgoers and TV binge-watchers read the critics and listen to friends, thus may wait two or three weeks before signing on to a new show. Still, new studies demonstrate that the 50-plus demo has become vastly more responsive to social media; indie film companies like A24 and Bleecker Street that focus on social media marketing report that the senior audience is responding ever more positively to their campaigns.
Hence some companies are resisting the push to the younger demo. Echo Lake, a management and production company, has focused counter-intuitively on product aimed at an older, more sophisticated following – witness its involvement with Nebraska and Truth. Under Mike Marcus, Andy Spaulding and Doug Mankoff, Echo Lake also is prepping Hot Sets, about a group of older women who put together an Olympic volleyball team (Howie Deutch will direct). Movies that deal with the older demo, to be sure, have to pursue their own exotic means of funding. One Echo Lake client, Rosemary Rodriguez, a busy TV director (The Good Wife, etc), put together a wide web of funding for Silver Skies, a geriatric survival movie about a band of geezers whose condo complex is about to be torn down. Industry vets like Barbara Bain and Mariette Hartley lead the cast; George Hamilton, 77, plays a geezer who retains his charm and ambition despite total memory loss.
Amidst all this, Clint Eastwood can take pride in becoming a new type of role model. Once the king of spaghetti Westerns, he can now claim honorary leadership of the geezer brigade. And can laugh all the way to the bank.