Remember when the mere thought of your middle-aged parents having sex made you cringe? Who’s cringing now? Not this 53-year-old woman, as I rewatch Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson get it on in the 2003 film Something’s Gotta Give. The story goes that when writer-director Nancy Meyers pitched the idea to Keaton, the actor snorted and said, “No one will make a movie about someone my age falling in love.”
Keaton was 57 when the movie came out. It was a huge hit, grossing more than $260 million worldwide at the box office. Still, Hollywood didn’t get the hint and green-light a spate of romantic comedies—or films of any other genres—aimed at people who misplace their reading glasses. Maybe they just figured, “It’s complicated,” which happens to be the title of Meyers’s follow-up middle-aged romp in 2009. (Check it out: Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin go at it a few times.)
Cut to more than a decade later, and Hollywood finally sees us Gen Xers and baby boomers. Admittedly, we’re hard to miss: there are more than 117 million Americans aged 50 and up, a demographic that “now makes up 31 percent of all moviegoers,” says film and TV critic Tim Apello, the entertainment editor for AARP, which hosts the annual Movies for Grownups Awards. (In 2020, Adam Sandler, Laura Dern, and Harriet director Kasi Lemmons picked up wins.) “America is aging, despite our efforts to deny it. And that box office power is dawning on the suits.”
This article appears in the Winter 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
So much so that last April, independent studio MRC, which released Knives Out, debuted a new film division devoted to the over-50 demo called Landline Pictures—get it? It’s groundbreaking for a Hollywood studio to dedicate a division to mature moviegoers. The upcoming slate includes Jerry and Marge Go Large, about a retired couple who juke the Massachusetts lottery system, starring Bryan Cranston and Annette Bening, and a coming-of-middle-age movie, The Back Nine, with Renée Zellweger as a newly minted divorcée who reclaims herself on the links.
With so many movie stars embracing the small screen, we’re seeing the middle-age migration bear out in television, too. Jennifer Aniston plays a talk show anchor being prodded out to pasture in The Morning Show; Naomi Watts stars in Ryan Murphy’s next limited series, The Watcher. “In most of Ryan Murphy’s shows, you have a story centered on a woman who’s older, over 40 at least, but feels current and relevant,” says Emmy-winning casting director Courtney Bright. “We’re seeing more and more of those types of roles.”
The Netflix series On the Verge, starring Elisabeth Shue and French actor Julie Delpy (who also created the show), has been described as Girls for middle-aged women. Sandra Oh plays the head of a university’s stodgy English department in The Chair, also on the streamer. In December, the HBO Sex and the City reboot, And Just Like That…, debuted after a near-20-year hiatus from television. (Two SATC movies bridged the gap, but women still salivated for a more mature Carrie Bradshaw.) After Oscar-winning actor Kate Winslet added a second Emmy to her collection this past September for her role as a haggard detective in HBO’s Mare of Easttown, she said backstage that her portrayal of a real middle-aged woman meant a “huge amount because it makes me feel, genuinely, that our industry is changing.”
“Historically in TV, the oldest a female character could be was 35, and hitting 40 was crisis time,” says Maria Grasso, president of Tiny Pyro Productions, which has an overall development deal with Netflix to produce new TV series. “Now, we see women over 50 who have sexual story lines, start new businesses, and are thriving, which reflects what is happening in the real world.”
FOLLOW THE MONEY
Why all this attention now and not 20 years ago? “I don’t think any new studio head comes in and says, ‘The first thing I’m going to do is start developing a slew of content for an over-50 audience,’ ” says Amy Baer, the 55-year-old veteran development executive at the helm of Landline, who worked on Something’s Gotta Give when she was at Sony. “It’s not sticky. It’s not sexy. But it’s lucrative, and there’s a massive opportunity in the marketplace.”
Baer adds that Hollywood has short-term memory loss—“pun intended”—about the historical one-off hits for older audiences: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011), for example, or Last Vegas (2013), or Book Club, which came out in 2018 and took in $104 million at the box office (on a $14 million budget). “Everyone passed on Book Club, which did very well, and now they’re doing a sequel,” says Baer.
Grasso sees the shift as an outgrowth of several female executives ascending to top-level roles in the entertainment industry. “Just in the last 18 months, older women moved into very senior positions at Warner Bros., NBC, Disney, and Netflix,” she says. “That’s unprecedented. Women used to age out of TV jobs by 50.”
Tell that to magazine editors. Women with waning collagen don’t get much attention from the media. I should know. For most of my career, I wrote about the culture of keeping up appearances for publications like InStyle, Elle, and Marie Claire. But when I turned 45 and started pitching stories about our hormones going haywire and midlife career pivots, no one bit. (Editors sheepishly told me that advertisers weren’t interested in my aging demo.) Meanwhile, word got out about my side hustle as a “midlife midwife,” guiding women through the trials of maturity and perimenopause. So in December 2020, I launched a newsletter called Pretty Ripe, about “beauty, fashion, f-ing hormones and feminism.” I emailed it to about 50 of my peers, and now I have nearly 2,000 subscribers.
“There is a whole dialogue that isn’t happening, especially for women,” agrees Baer. “Part of the energy behind Landline is that there are so many people who are desperate for stories that speak to them in their phase of life. And if you want to be cynical about it, it’s just money on the table, right? This is an audience with disposable time and income.”
That’s for sure. According to the Federal Reserve, Gen Xers like me hold 28.6 percent of the nation’s wealth, while people over 50 account for more than half of the consumer spending in the United States. Baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, are responsible for more than half a trillion dollars in annual spending—and Gen Xers follow right behind them. What’s more, Nielsen reports that by the end of the next decade, the 18-to-49 demographic is expected to grow by 12 percent, while my 50-plus pals and I will swell by 34 percent. Take that, TikTok. “We have the money and the taste to demand better, smarter movies,” says a more diplomatic Apello.
Film producer Bill Dever, the author of The Monster That Ate the Movies: How Big Business Is Destroying an American Institution, says that the 18-to-24 demo Hollywood typically chases like a lovestruck teen is now distracted by other interactive media, like video games and e-sports. “They may be the biggest demo when it comes to moviegoers, but the problem is, they’re not the most loyal,” he says. “They only come out for tentpoles like Marvel movies.”
MIND THE GAP
How two love interests collide in a romantic comedy is known as the meet-cute. It’s a term as dated as me—though it does sound vaguely millennial. As a sucker for clever rom-coms, I’m eager to see more middle-aged couples find love. Maybe they fight over who’s first in line at the pharmacy while picking up their prescriptions? Or the two bond over not being able to decipher the tiny artisanal print on a menu after she awkwardly orders “a big hunk of meat that goes with my big glass of zin”?
So what can we expect if, say, Regina King, who is 51, and Jamie Foxx, who is 54, meet cute in a rom-com? “It’s probably a lot more pragmatic than it is spontaneous and wild,” says Baer. “Once you get to a certain age, you don’t have to play all these goofy games.” She adds that watching a couple rekindle romance in a flat marriage is as desirable for a moviegoer as seeing a divorcée, widow, or confirmed bachelor hook up with someone new. Apello chimes in: “We’re keeping romantic comedies alive, and we’re seeing more and more age-appropriate movie couples.”
Meaning, casting a couple with a Grand Canyon–size age gap, as we saw between Catherine Zeta-Jones, then 29, and Sean Connery, then 68, in 1999’s Entrapment, won’t fly anymore. (It should be noted that the pairing registered this offhand and apolitical observation in the New York Times review: “[Connery] has an imperious, crotchety streak to keep his much younger partner at bay.” I bet he did.) This year, expect better. A 53-year-old Owen Wilson woos Jennifer Lopez (52) in a romantic comedy coming out in February called Marry Me. This fall, another midlife rom-com, Ticket to Paradise, pairs Gen Xer Julia Roberts with baby boomer George Clooney.
What’s most striking to me about all this talk of segmenting audiences according to age is that I really don’t feel much older than I did a decade ago. Especially not when, on a purely superficial level, actors like Aniston and Lopez publicly celebrate their 50th birthdays with splashy parties. Seriously, have you seen Lopez’s abs? Fifty is not the new 30 or 40, according to middle-aged women like me. It’s the big 5-0 in neon lights (and yes, we’ll eat our birthday cake, too). I didn’t even flinch when my AARP card came in the mail.
Baer tells me that naming a film division for people over the age of 50 was no easy feat. “We had a firm do some research on test names, and they came back with pandering names that condescended, like Silver this and Golden that,” she says. “But this isn’t about retiring. People over 50 are living really big and fulfilled, meaningful lives. There is no expiration date.”•