How Senior Citizens Became Independent Film’s Most Powerful Audience

Michael Showalter’s Hello, My Name Is Doris (out Friday in limited release) is a charming, funny, sweet, little movie – and, consciously or not, one of the more commercially savvy independent pictures of the season. Oh, it may not look that way; on its face, Doris is a quirky little comedy from one of the minds behind Wet Hot American Summer. Yet because of who it’s about (a sparkly, likable near-senior citizen, played by Sally Field) and how it’s about it (a hip, indie New York comedy), it feels like Showalter’s put together a perfectly aligned Venn diagram for sleeper success. And the reason is simple: Doris is a movie that appeals to older moviegoers, and they’ve quietly become the most reliable audience out there for independent film.

Don’t believe me? Let’s take a pop quiz. What was last year’s highest-grossing Sundance film? If you answered It Follows, the much-buzzed indie horror sleeper, I’m afraid you’re wrong; it was Brooklyn, your grandmother’s (and, OK, film editor’s) favorite Oscar contender, which has grossed $37 million and counting. What about second place? Perhaps the winner of both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl? Nope; it was A Walk in the Woods, the Robert Redford/Nick Nolte-fronted Bill Bryson adaptation, which snuck into theaters last fall and grossed nearly $30 million while no one was looking. In fact, if you examine the post-Park City box office numbers, such youth-oriented, buzz-heavy favorites as Me and Earl, The End of the Tour, and Mistress America were ultimately out-grossed not only by Walk, but by I’ll See You in My Dreams and Grandma – two more films about senior citizens.

And it’s not just a question of Sundance alums. Last year’s highest-grossing indie movies also included the Helen Mirren vehicle Woman in Gold (which did $33 million of steady business last spring), The Second-Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (same gross, in the same frame), and Mr. Holmes ($17 million as summer counter-programming). In 2014 – the most recent year when statistics were available – the MPAA found “the share of tickets sold to 40-49 and 50-59 year olds were at all time highs, while the share of tickets sold to 60+ year olds (13%) was at its highest level since 2011.” And during that same period, fewer tickets were sold to 18-24 year olds and 25-39 year olds.

In other words, at some point in our recent history, the most reliable target audience for independent films shifted; theaters you might assume are full of 20- and 30-something Brooklyn hipsters of the type played by Max Greenfield and Kumail Nanjiani in Doris are in fact, most of the time, hosting audiences that look more like Sally Field.

Sam Elliott and Blythe Danner in "I'll See You in My Dreams"
Sam Elliott and Blythe Danner in “I’ll See You in My Dreams”

Daniela Tuplin Lundberg, one of Doris’ producers (her credits also include The Kids Are All Right, Beasts of No Nation, and What Maisie Knew), says they “didn’t set out to make the movie” because of its potential appeal to that older audience. But “in the wake of making it, we really have seen these movies – like Grandma and I’ll See You in My Dreams – that have a real life in the theaters, and so I feel like the older audience is certainly reliable. I feel like filmmakers and distributors are paying attention to that much, much more than they have in the past.”

It’s a sharp departure from the standard studio groupthink that targets all product at the lucrative under-35 demo, but Scott Mendelson, who covers box office trends for Forbes, sees the pattern as well. “You have people that say, ‘Jeez, why don’t they make movies for people like me anymore?’ When they do, within reason – in terms of budget and expectations – that demographic tends to show up.” There were hit films targeted at them before: Driving Miss Daisy, Cocoon, Grumpy Old Men, The Bucket List. But the turning point for that 60+ demographic, it seems, was The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. That ensemble comedy/drama looked like a sacrificial lamb to many observers (including this one) when it opened against The Avengers back in May of 2012. Instead, Fox-Searchlight’s bold bit of counterprogramming resulted in a $136 million worldwide haul – and the realization that there was an audience for movies about senior citizens.

In the four years since its release, Mendelson says, we’ve seen that model adopted by upstart distributors like Bleecker Street, Broad Green, A24, and Open Road, “new distribution networks that, in their own skewed way, are going to save theaters by a) offering material that is somewhat counterprogramming to the tentpoles, and b) being able to have just enough muscle to keep them in theaters for long enough for people to see them. And every once in a while they’ll get a Spotlight or a Brooklyn or a Woman in Gold… And that’s the kind of film that ten, 15 years ago would have been a casual Saturday night at the movies. That would have been the stuff that Warner Brothers put out in the middle of winter.”

Joseph Bologna and Dyan Cannon in Susan Seidelman's "Boynton Beach Club"
Joseph Bologna and Dyan Cannon in Susan Seidelman’s “Boynton Beach Club”

And that’s a key piece of the puzzle: with studios increasingly uninterested in the kind of mid-budget, adult-oriented dramas that older audiences gravitate towards, independent filmmakers and distributors are discovering that audience is theirs for the taking. We’ve talked about that shift before; in researching that piece, I talked to Desperately Seeking Susan director Susan Seidelman, who was trying to mine the AARP set clear back in 2005. “I did Boynton Beach Club, which was a kind of a date movie for people 60 and above,” she told me. “At that time, we had real difficulty trying to prove that there was a big enough audience. We made the film independently through equity financing, and then got it out there, got it accepted to a lot of festivals, it got nice reviews, and still a lot of the traditional distribution companies said, ‘We don’t believe there’s a big enough audience out there.’ My producers and I disagreed, so we decided to start out self-distributing, opening it in areas where we knew there was a larger, older demographic – like in South Florida, for example. And we did really well! And suddenly, some of the distributors who had rejected us the first time around came back and said, ‘Oh, OK, I get it! Maybe there is this audience out there.’”

The success of these films, Mendelson is careful to note, isn’t likely to cause studios to alter the franchise-chasing paths they’re on. “If you’re a major studio, you’re not going to impress the shareholders by saying, ‘We’ve got Grandma coming out in March!’” he says. “Or even Woman in Gold, even though it made a decent profit… But I do think that there will be a few more [of these films], because at the end of the day the studios need to fill the non-blockbuster slots. I also think that there will be more because as we see more small distribution networks – and some of them will survive, some of them will not – they’re going to need product that isn’t an $80 million CGI-animated film or a $150 million fantasy tentpole.”

It’s also important to place the reliability of this older audience within the context of current independent cinema. Over the past several years, widespread shifts in viewing patterns and release strategies have resulted in a majority of independent releases seeing simultaneous “day and date” release in theaters and on demand. Younger viewers are more likely to rent or download (or, perhaps, steal) those titles and view them at home. According to the MPAA, the number of “frequent moviegoers” (people who see movies in the theater once a month or more) dropped by nearly two million in the 18-24 year old demo between 2012 and 2014; among 25-39 year olds, that number dropped by almost three million. But among viewers 60 and over – less inclined to download or stream, either due to technological resistance or an attachment to the experiential element of going to the movies – the number of frequent moviegoers rose.

The cast of "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"
The cast of “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”

“People over 50 grew up in a cinema-appreciating culture, where you still go and see movies on a big screen,” Seidelman notes. And for younger audiences, it’s often less a matter of interest than of time and cost. “Before I had kids, I’d go to the movies once a week,” Lundberg confesses. “And now, I have a company, I have three children, I have to commute, and it’s very difficult to get out to the theater. I feel like the older generation is not only capable of going to the theater, but that’s really the way they like to view things… And the younger generation, they’re just used to a media feed.”

Mendelson concurs, “When you’re old enough to, if not be retired than maybe have your kids out of the house,” he says, “going to the movies isn’t a giant obstacle.” And Lundberg notes that this could be the one downside of this year’s #OscarsSoWhite-driven shakeup in AMPAS membership rules, which would remove members from the voting rolls after periods of inactivity in the industry. “Anecdotally, I would have to say that my father, who was a filmmaker, and a lot of his friends – I feel they’re the ones who really do watch everything. They aren’t just watching the big-ticket items or the things that are out in front of everything, but they really are watching a few movies a week – and maybe that’s because they have time or maybe that’s just because they’re interested.”

These audiences are also seeing familiar faces from their generation that don’t get the exposure they used to. Part of the marketing hook for I’ll See You in My Dreams was that it featured 72-year-old character actress Blythe Danner in her first leading role; ditto Grandma, which was Lily Tomlin’s first lead since 1988’s Big Business. “These are actresses that had, at one time, real marquee value,” Lundberg says, and the net result is inspiring: “I think the industry — and maybe they would disagree – but I do feel like there are slightly more opportunities than there were five or ten years ago for actresses who are slightly older.”

Isabella Acres and Sally Field in "Hello, My Name Is Doris"
Isabella Acres and Sally Field in “Hello, My Name Is Doris”

That’s certainly something worth celebrating about Doris, which finds Sally Field playing her first leading role in a decade (and her second-most recent was a decade before that). Beyond that, though, note how the film treats her character, a mousy bookkeeper who finds herself thunderstruck by John (Max Greenfield, from New Girl), the new guy at the office, several decades her junior. A lesser movie would’ve made fun of Doris, sneered at her and her impossible crush; frankly, considering the take-no-prisoners approach of Showalter’s earlier work, it’s a bit surprising that Hello, My Name Is Doris is so darned nice. But it is – there’s a real sweetness to this film, a warmth. The movie is clearly rooting for Doris, and consequently, so are we.

And why shouldn’t we? When her best friend’s granddaughter helps her navigate Facebook to find out what her crush likes, she goes out to buy his favorite band’s new CD. When she puts on the EDM record, they could’ve gone for the cheap laugh by having her bewildered or disgusted by what came out. Instead, she finds a way into it, because she’s interested and curious, and when she goes to one of their concerts in a wild neon outfit, she fits right in. Doris becomes something of a mascot to John and his Williamsburg friends, which allows Showalter and Terruso to indulge in just enough pretentious-Brooklyn humor – she meets exciting young people (“I make my own vanilla”; “I teach at a gay preschool in Park Slope”) and becomes part of “the LGBT knitting community.”

You get the idea. In those scenes, the joke is never on Doris; she remains, come what may, herself, yet open to the cultural experiences around her. And that, in an unexpected way, is the subtle message of a movie like Hello, My Name Is Doris, and the indie scene that it’s entering: we are surrounded by people like Doris, who have lived a little and learned a few things and are still active and engaged. And, as indie filmmakers and distributors are learning, they’re still going to the movies too.