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Theatres (and the movies they show) are being amended for mature audiences

Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks in "Larry Crowne"

Universal Pictures

Hang out at Toronto's Varsity Cinemas on any given afternoon and chances are you'll find yourself in a stampede (okay, a polite queue) of neatly dressed, salt-and-pepper folk heading to the movies.

This crowd has no interest in the summer's coming blockbusters - X-Men, say, or Thor - full of brawn and special effects. Instead, they're buying tickets for literary adaptations ( Water for Elephants) and Oscar-winners ( In a Better World): films that appeal to more mature tastes - tastes that are increasingly appealing to movie executives.

Historically, Hollywood has more or less shunned older viewers, who tended to buy fewer concessions than younger audiences, and took in a movie only once, maybe twice, a year. But in the last 18 months, studios, cinema operators and movie distributors have tracked a surprising surge in ticket sales among the 50-plussers - boomers who either have kids old enough to leave alone at home for an evening, whose children who have fled the nest entirely, or who simply have more time as they settle into retirement.

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It's a surge that was preceded by a steady uptick. According to Toronto research firm The Lightning Group, that older demographic's share of box-office receipts in Canada has jumped 47 per cent over the last decade - and now accounts for 25 per cent of ticket sales. And Tinseltown is paying attention.

"For years, I've been talking about the greying of the population and the fact that movie studios have to catch up," says Lightning founder Howard Lichtman. "It's not as if there [were]never films for people aged 50-plus, but titles like Black Swan and The King's Speech were normally segregated, to come out in December (for Oscar contention), or in September, when the kiddies were back in school and the spate of summer blockbusters had run its course."

Now, he says, the studios are adding more adult-themed dramas into the year-round mix. "It's finally dawned on [the film industry]that one in every four moviegoers belongs to the half-century club."

That's a figure Tom Greenwald, waiting in line at the Varsity on a grey Thursday afternoon, insists is excessively low. "I know I'm a bit of an exception, since I've already seen 150 movies this year," says the 66-year-old. "But the boomers who only get to the cinema four times a year aren't the boomers I know. For most of us, it's a regular occurrence: something we do because we love the intelligence of quality films."

Suzanne Gourley, 62, agrees. She comes to theatres like the Varsity every two weeks. "There are still a lot of teenybopper films, but thankfully, serious-minded, thoughtful films are getting easier to find," she says. "There seem to be a lot more age-appropriate stories for people like me. I definitely come to the cinema far more than I did 10 or 15 years ago."

Certainly, in addition to this summer's big-budget action flicks - which are aimed at what is still the biggest moviegoing demographic, of 17-to-25-year-olds (primarily males) - there are a refreshing number of movies with more senescent themes heading to screens: Larry Crowne, a romance with Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts; Terrence Malick's family drama The Tree of Life, with Brad Pitt and Sean Penn; Potiche with Catherine Deneuve; Mel Gibson's would-be rehabilitative project, The Beaver; and the adaptation of the literary sensation The Help.

It's not just about older people going to movies more often. The rise in gaming, the ability to legally download films from the Internet (and onto iPads and iPhones), plus the prevalence of piracy, is beginning to dissuade some younger people from heading to cinemas. "They are not the growth sector they once were," says Hussain Amarshi, president of art-house distributor Mongrel Media in Toronto. "The older crowd, who were weaned on movies and grew up in movie houses … simply don't have as many distractions as the younger crowd."

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Ellis Jacob, CEO of Cineplex, Canada's largest cinema operator, has also tweaked to the trend. In the last three years, his company has been retrofitting theatres with all kinds of bells and whistles to woo the half-century club: plush leather seats; massive screens; and the latest digital technology. His firm has also opened three VIP theatres: at Toronto's Varsity, as well at venues in Oakville and London, Ont., with more planned in major markets. They are restricted to viewers 19 and older, and are staffed by waiters who will serve, to your seat, a frozen mojito or sweet-potato fries.

Cineplex is also offering a plethora of alternative programming, including broadcasts from New York's Metropolitan Opera and the Bolshoi Ballet, and the Broadway musical Memphis (which opened across Canada this week). The Met flicks are a huge hit. Five years ago, when Cineplex started screening live performances from the venerable opera company, they played in 24 Canadian theatres - in each location on a single screen. Today, they play at more than 100 venues, in many instances selling out up to four screens at each.

"I think the studios have acknowledged there is a real niche they can provide product for," says Jacob, who believes premium services, which include reserved seating, will offset any decline in the under-25 ticket sales. A VIP ticket, for instance, costs $5 more than a regular admission. He also notes that 50-plus moviegoers now average four films a year, a significant jump from the once-a-year-visit they typically made 15 years ago.

In the grand scheme, of course, the overall percentage of older moviegoers is still relatively small, with the over-50s representing 32 per cent of North America's population, but only 21 per cent of the 1.34 billion tickets sold in 2010, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. By contrast, the 12-to-24 age group - which make up 18 per cent of the population - bought more than 32 per cent of tickets.

Still, the white-haired battalion continues to gather steam. Last year, the number of North Americans over 50 going to the movies hit almost 45 million, up from 26.8 million in 1995, says U.S. media research firm GfK MRI. The company also tracked attendance of people aged 18 to 24, and found they purchased an average of seven tickets last year, down from eight in 2009.

David Reckziegel, co-president of Toronto-based film and TV production company E1 Entertainment, says his firm first really took notice of the jump in sales to more mature audiences last year when Red, starring the 65-year-old Helen Mirren, and The Expendables, with 64-year-old Sylvester Stallone, shocked the industry by hauling in worldwide box-office of $186-million (U.S.) and $275-million, respectively.

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Reckziegel, who is based in Montreal, notes that such old-timer action films ( Red stands for "retired and extremely dangerous") are also increasingly given a chance to gain their footing. Instead of a limited release - especially for artier fare like Black Swan or The King's Speech - artier films are kept in theatres longer, "which tends to attract a broader demographic."

" Red is a good example," says Reckziegel. "Its first weekend, it opened number two, behind Jackass 3D. But it ended up doing phenomenally well as word began to spread. The King's Speech and Black Swan benefited from the same slow build. The older demographic don't feel the need to rush out on opening weekend, but if they hear it's a good story, they'll keep coming, week after week."

With the back end of the baby-boomer generation still only 45, Hollywood has several years ahead to ride the golden-oldie curve. That's good news not only for filmmakers and distributors, but for all those Hollywood actors facing the arrival of their own golden years - and hoping their fans will slide into theatres right along with them.

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