The silver screen’s silver-hair boom

Movies made for and starring older people are thriving. Nicholas Barber discovers why cinema is having a senior moment.

It has nothing to do with flowers, but there is a new phenomenon in the film industry known as the Marigold Effect. It refers to a resurgent interest in characters who are, shall we say, a year or two older than the typical action-movie hunk or romantic-comedy babe. It stems from  the colossal success of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in 2012. The stars of that film, including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy, are all in their sixties and seventies, a factor that was enough to stop several studios investing in it. And yet the low-budget British film went on to make £85m ($137m) at the global box office − proof that a few wrinkles and grey hairs could attract viewers, rather than put them off. One of the beneficiaries of this proof was Philomena, a new true-life comedy drama about a retired Irish nurse (Judi Dench) seeking the son who was taken from her as a baby by Catholic nuns.

“The truth is,” says Gabrielle Tana, one of the film’s producers, “when we cast Judi Dench in Philomena we could all of a sudden quote the Marigold Effect. That’s not why we made the film, of course. We did it because we had a wonderful story to tell. But it was a blessing that Marigold was already there.”

Nor was The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel the only one of 2012’s releases to demonstrate the money-spinning potential of senior citizens. In the same year, Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones discussed their sex life in Hope Springs, and Michael Haneke won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for Amour, his tragic account of an elderly Parisian husband and wife being pulled apart by illness. In 2013, the trend continued with Dustin Hoffman’s Quartet and Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, and it has been announced that The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel itself is going to have a sequel.

Also on the list is Le Week-End, featuring James Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan as an English couple celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary in Paris. It is the third film with pensionable protagonists to come from the team of Roger Michell, its director, Hanif Kureishi, its writer, and Kevin Loader, its producer. Their previous collaboration was Venus, starring Peter O’Toole and Leslie Phillips, and before that was The Mother, a drama that explored an affair between a sexagenarian woman (Anne Reid) and a much younger handyman (Daniel Craig). “In 2003,” chuckles Loader, “The Mother seemed a very radical thing to be doing. Now here we are ten years later and we seem to be part of a movement!”

A golden age

Loader credits this movement, in part, to the wealth of actors-of-a-certain-age who aren’t willing to leave the stage just yet. “There’s a brilliant generation of actors who want to keep working and are really loving the opportunity to do this kind of material,” he says. “They’re not being offered these parts in mainstream movies, so if you write interesting roles you can get very distinguished actors to come and work in your very low-budget film.”

But the 60 and 70 somethings who are queuing up to star in challenging films are only half the story. What is just as significant is the people of a similar age who are queuing up to watch them. Or, as Loader puts it, “It’s down to the open mindedness of a generation that now has a bit of time on its hands.” This baby-boomer generation, which can remember the grown-up cinema of the 1960s and 1970s, was driven away by the subsequent barrage of superhero movies, but it is now being lured back by more earthbound, character-led dramas. “There was a huge gap in terms of what was available,” says Tana. “The entertainment industry is all about tentpole blockbusters and teenagers now, but The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel showed that there was this undernourished, under-served, older audience out there.”

In fact, that audience was already being enticed back to cinemas. In 2008, Mamma Mia! may have put Amanda Seyfried on its posters, but the film itself focused on Meryl Streep’s late middle-aged heroine − and it went onto make £377m ($610m). Two years on, another film had a similar impact. “Anecdotally, The King’s Speech had a hugely beneficial effect,” says Charles Gant, The Guardian’s  box-office expert. “Older audience members who hadn’t been to the cinema in decades were amazed to discover that a) cinemas are nicer now than when they were smoky fleapits, and b) there are intelligent films for them to enjoy. I have lots of friends who tell me their parents go to the cinema a couple of times per year since The King’s Speech, whereas prior to that it had been years since they had been.”

Technology is also helping to pack movie theatres with older audiences. If cinemas have become more comfortable in recent years, the way in which films are transported to these cinemas has been modernised, too. Now that the latest releases can be distributed digitally, there is no need for anyone to cart around or store bulky canisters of celluloid. As a result, it’s easier for cinemas to hang onto as many films as they like for as long as they like, which means that they can be more flexible with their scheduling. “Older audiences don’t necessarily find a film the first weekend it’s out,” says Loader. “It can take them a few weeks, so it’s important for these films to stay around longer. That used to be complicated, but with digital distribution it’s not that difficult for independent cinemas and enlightened multiplexes to have a drama playing on the smaller screens during the week, when pensioners can go and see them, and then they can put the blockbusters on at the weekend. It’s always been an odd idea to build these massive cinemas, and have them full all weekend and empty during the week. The managers are slowly waking up to the fact that older audiences will fill them up on Mondays to Thursdays.”

And if there is money to be made by films that are for and about older people, it is hardly surprising that Hollywood’s executives are waking up, too. Two of this year’s American offerings are Last Vegas, which sends Robert De Niro, Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline on a stag trip together, and Escape Plan, which teams up Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The average age of these stars is 69 − a sure sign that even the mighty Schwarzenegger can be influenced by Judi Dench and The Marigold Effect.

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