Friday, May 11, 2012

Romantic comedies for old people

Not many movies wanted to open against The Avengers last weekend.

In fact, only one of any note did: John Madden's The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Albeit on only 27 screens nationwide.

It was the ultimate in counter-programming. A superhero movie for young people vs. a romantic comedy for old people.

It shouldn't be much of a surprise who won.

Granted, the $902,000 domestic gross to date for Marigold Hotel is not bad, considering its small number of screens. But the small number of screens -- especially with a cast of this pedigree -- should tell you something about how often studio execs think old people go to the movies.

Which is odd, because at one of our favorite nearby theaters, we always complain about the fact that the place seems overrun with old people. And I don't live near some retirement community in Florida. I live in the bustling metropolis of Los Angeles, which doesn't only bustle, but is home to the movie industry. And plenty of blue-haired old ladies, thank you very much.

(To be clear, we don't complain about them because we have a problem with their blue hair or musty smells. It's because they don't seem to be able to prevent themselves from talking during the movie. Their ability to filter the little voice inside their head seems to have vanished once they turned 70.)

For awhile this spring, when I was seeing a trailer for Marigold Hotel before every other movie I attended, I linked it in my mind to Lasse Hallstrom's Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, which came out about six weeks earlier, whose trailer I was also seeing on a repeating loop at this theater. The cast is younger, but the audience seems to be the same: older people who have outgrown edgy humor, who may be thinking about the exotic locations they haven't yet visited and may never visit, and are not automatically thrown off by five-world titles.

In a run of about six weeks, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen made just under $8 million in the U.S. That was on a much larger eventual total of 483 screens.

So, maybe old people don't go to the movies that much after all.

Still, I'm heartened by these attempts to remember that other demographics exist beyond the audiences who either have gone to Comic-Con, or would go if they had the money. It's an increasingly rare risk for studios to take.

It seems hard to believe that there was a time when a movie like Grumpy Old Men not only didn't make people blink, but actually scored $70 million at the box office -- and that was in 1993 dollars. (Harder to believe is that its budget was a full $35 million, so the box office hit only doubled the budget domestically.) In fact, it was hit enough that Grumpier Old Men came out in 1995 -- making $1 million more domestically on a budget that was $10 million less. ($25 million seems like more the right amount to spend on a movie like this. It must have cost a lot to lure Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau out of semi-retirement for the first one.)

These days, with every movie needing to have the potential for franchising and merchandising, the market has shifted away from the older audiences who could once help make movies a hit. And I think we're the worse for it. It's why more movies seem the same as each other rather than different from one another.

Of course, I'm not doing my part. I'm only 38, but I'm fast approaching old. And I didn't see Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, and have no realistic plans to see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I'm sure I'll catch both on DVD.

But I also am steadfastly refusing to add to the coffers of The Avengers.

There's that, at least.

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