On August 12 — the moment in the summer movie-release calendar when blockbuster season traditionally gives way to blockbuster-fatigue season — Paramount Pictures will release Meryl Streep’s new movie Florence Foster Jenkins, a period comedy-drama about a famously incompetent and famously undeterrable aspiring soprano. The date is not an accident: Streep is a veteran of August, when her movies step in to pick up the disheartened and franchise-weary; this is roughly the same weekend that brought her to us in Ricki and the Flash (2015), Hope Springs (2012), and Julie & Julia (2009).
But this release, a modestly budgeted indie (Paramount acquired it after it was shot) feels slightly different: Streep, at 67, is no longer an outlier defying all conventional wisdom about the box-office viability of an actress north of 50; she’s part of a trend. It began a little more than a year ago, when I’ll See You in My Dreams, a tiny independent drama from a fledgling company starring the then-72-year-old Blythe Danner, a well-liked actress with no box-office track record whatsoever, grossed an unexpectedly strong $7.4 million in theaters. Last September, another indie, Grandma, with Lily Tomlin (76), took in $7 million as well. And the beginning of 2016 brought Maggie Smith (81) in the British import The Lady in the Van ($10 million), Helen Mirren (70) in the drone thriller Eye in the Sky ($18.7 million), and Sally Field (69) in the comedy-drama Hello, My Name Is Doris ($14.4 million).
These aren’t blockbuster numbers, to be sure — the total U.S. grosses of those five films combined don’t add up to what even a mid-level franchise movie like Star Trek Beyond made in its first weekend. On the other hand, profit is profit, and I very much doubt any of these distributors is complaining. Indie grosses are measured on a different scale, and on that scale, the numbers for movies driven by older women aren’t good — they’re great. For some perspective: Of the more than 100 films to show at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival a year and a half ago, most of those that were actually released grossed less than $1 million, and only six grossed more than $6 million. Two of them were Danner’s and Tomlin’s. Or, to yardstick it another way, these numbers are either comparable to or way ahead of what 2016’s buzziest art-house success, The Lobster, has grossed, and they have left many 2016 indies that were intended to skew younger — Swiss Army Man, The Neon Demon, Green Room, Sing Street — in the dust.
It is not surprising that five actresses with decades of great work to their credit would have fans, but the fact that those fans — especially in the era of streaming and VOD — would be so willing to leave their homes and head for theaters comes as a jolt. The very notion of mobile, active, committed older entertainment consumers is a bad fit for a pop culture–industrial complex that has long been demographically indifferent to them. In television, 18- to 49-year-olds are the prized quarry, and viewers over 50 (or 60) are treated by advertisers as people who never buy anything but adult diapers and medic-alert systems and sit in their adjustable beds leaning forward with ear horns to make sure they hear the list of dangerous side effects in the commercials.
None of those stereotypes, however, should matter in the non-advertising world of independent movies, where, after all, a 65-year-old’s Fandango dollars are worth exactly as much as a 15-year-old’s. This boomlet should be especially welcome news since the economic narrative for art-house indies for the last few years has not been great. Foreign-language films that might, a decade ago, have grossed $2 million or $3 million in theaters now take in $500,000; and for “breakout” indie hits, $5 million is the new $20 million. In the movie business, the prevailing wisdom has it that everything is migrating inexorably toward your living room, your laptop, your pad, or your phone, and also that an older audience that’s pickier about its entertainment choices and more mindful of leisure-time management is not worth chasing. That’s one reason big-studio movies are now geared so completely either to young adults (a demographic susceptible to advertising, open to being in a large group, undemanding about atmosphere, and eager for instant gratification), or to people with kids (desperate for activities that will keep them occupied). They’re happy to go out; everyone else is considered too hard to lure.
But this trend flies in the face of that; it is a reminder that older audiences actually have a lifelong habit of going to the movies that they’re not particularly interested in shedding, a kind of muscle-memory loyalty to the theatrical experience that, given the right actor in the right movie at the right price, may make them the most potent consumer force in indie movies right now. (Last year’s single biggest Sundance hit, the amiable amble A Walk in the Woods, starred Robert Redford and Nick Nolte. If you’re under 35, you’ve probably never heard of it, but it grossed more than Ex Machina.)
These movies aren’t all in the adorable-oldsters mode of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel either (although any indie company would fall to its knees in thanks for that film’s $33 million U.S. gross). Eye in the Sky is steeped in current geopolitics about the ethics of war technology; Grandma deals with abortion rights and leaves no ambiguity about where it stands; Hello, My Name Is Doris is frank about loneliness, sexual desire, and — perhaps this hits too close to the bone — society’s tendency to write off older women as dear little “characters” without passions or aspirations of their own. No wonder the movie struck a chord with an audience that’s almost systematically ignored.
It would be a mistake for any part of the industry — indie or studio — to write this off as a statistical blip. And, although recognition of an undervalued audience comes with maddening slowness in the movie business, there are signs that this dawning reality is being acknowledged. Netflix, perhaps looking at the success of its own Grace and Frankie, is backing the drama Our Souls at Night, which will reunite Redford with Jane Fonda 50 years after their first movie together, and it can’t be an accident that Universal, always looking to expand the reach of its Fast and Furious franchise, has added Mirren to the cast. The audience is real, and so is its appetite. And those who get it — who don’t simply view this particular group of movie lovers as the “about to die” demographic — may, a few years hence, look like very smart early adapters. In 1968, well before demographics were a subject of serious discussion at the studios, Variety reported the results of a study that showed 48 percent of American moviegoers were 24 or younger. For the middle-aged men who then ran Hollywood and thought they were making movies for themselves, the news was revelatory. Baby-boomers — the pig in the python — were coming of age, and over the next 15 years, the way movies were conceived, made, and marketed would undergo a revolution as a result. Now, almost 50 years later, that demographic is coming of old age, and making itself heard again. And if anyone wants it, they’ve still got money to spend.