Saving the silver screen

Posted on November 25, 2016 by Eleanor McKenzie
cinema screen

Recent research shows that Baby Boomers are keeping cinemas open. During the child-rearing years of our generation cinema attendance fell, but now we’re filling the seats like never before, even though there is still a lot of ageism in films. Is it just because we’re able to go out without booking a babysitter, and paying for that service on top of the price of cinema tickets and a few drinks or a meal before or after the film? Or are other factors involved other than our access to both time and money.

Statistics indicate that in the UK, USA and Canada the percentage of over-60s who would happily define themselves as “frequent moviegoers” is steadily rising. In North America, the percentage is around 15% of the age group and in the UK about 12.5%. These figures have been climbing steadily; it’s not a case of a major leap. As reported by The Guardian, Crispin Lilly, CEO of Everyman Cinemas in the UK has this view of the trend: “There is a whole generation of people who grew up with good quality cinemas before the 1980s that are now returning in droves.”

Yes, I remember the heady days of Seventies cinema when classic after classic was released. Who remembers “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “The Last Picture Show,” and “Mean Streets.” It was an era when Hollywood ‘went European’ and the result was some of the best films ever made, in my opinion. They had meaty plots and scripts and there was little reliance on special effects or superheroes, both of which seem to be the main content of the current cinema listings, unless you can find an independent cinema that is prepared to show films that aren’t mainstream or box office hits.

But things are changing in cinemas and one of the films that has really helped to bring us Baby Boomers back to the movies is “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” Its sequel, “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and “The Lady in the Van,” both featuring the wonderful Maggie Smith, were twice as popular with the over-55s as “Spectre,” the most recent film out of the Bond stable. This was quite a shock, as Bond has been cinema gold since Adam was a boy, but apparently he’s not quite cutting it with older and more sophisticated filmgoers any more.

It also appears that as a group, we are rather fond of the new ‘event cinemas’. That’s where you can also watch opera and ballet from some of the world’s great theatres streamed to your local cinema. Independent cinemas are well geared up for these events, and apparently some of the multiplexes are starting to see that they need to cater to an audience that wants comfort, better quality refreshments than popcorn and an interesting programme of films and other culture.

Ageism in movies

All this renewed interest in movie going may help to change the ageism in films. Researchers at the University of Southern California discovered that “only 11% of characters in the top grossing films of 2016 are older than 60, compared with 18.5% of the overall population.” Older characters are quite acceptable as long as they are (a) a wizard or something similar, like Ian McKellen’s Gandalf , or (b) they are a well known figure, i.e. the Queen or Margaret Thatcher played by Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep respectively.

Ordinary older people tend to become invisible, although the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films have done their best to rectify this. However, even these rely on a notion of British eccentricity and comedy to somehow make them acceptable. The same can be said of a recent film premiere I attended for “Golden Years,” in which a group of pensioners become bank robbers in order to reclaim the pension money they believe is rightly theirs. It has a stellar cast that includes Bernard Hill, Virginia McKenna, Una Stubbs and Simon Callow and a tagline of “Banks, Bowls and Bingo,” which, to me, somewhat spoilt the potential of the film. The point I’m going to make here is that filmmakers seem to think that older people are only suitable subjects for a story if they are doing something that is funny and outrageous. Even a retirement home in India manages to fall within this unspoken rule, although the storyline involving the retired judge, Graham Dashwood, added some emotional depth to this very enjoyable film. Oh, and I haven’t even started on roles for older women yet!

Characters over 60 should be portrayed as having full and independent lives and are not just as parents or grandparents who are used to move the story along for younger folk. Perhaps, if we all keep going to the cinema, writers and directors will do what older Hollywood actors have been demanding for ages – better roles and stories that acknowledge the over-60s are not bit part players, either in real life or on the silver screen.

by Eleanor McKenzie

Eleanor McKenzie is a Northern Irish writer with a passion for art, literature, and red wine. She's worked at advertising agency JWT, edited a journal for a European social policy think tank and tried to teach teenagers the difference between "there" and "their". Being 50+ has not significantly changed Eleanor's life, although she finds it a handy excuse when she wants to avoid anything too energetic.