Miércoles 2 de Agosto de 2006, Ip nº 164

From Generation X to baby boomers - why more mature audiences are flocking to the cinema
Por Nick Roddick

NEXT time you go to the movies, ask yourself the following questions. Does the cinema have (a) a bar that wouldn't look out of place in a posh hotel, or (b) an easy-wipe counter with hot-dog and popcorn machines? Is there (a) lots of glass, chrome and recessed lighting, or (b) miles of stained carpet beneath acres of polystyrene roof panels? And, finally, do your fellow movie-goers look (a) as if they've just left a Virgin Megastore with an armful of classic rock albums, or (b) like all their music comes from downloads?

If the answer to all questions is a, then welcome to the world of the MBA - the Movie Buff Adult, the fastest-growing section of the cinemagoing audience.

The Hollywood trade paper Variety recently noted a major surge in the number of 40 to 60-year-olds going to the cinema. But Michael Barker of Sony Pictures Classics thinks Variety is understating things: "I'd say 40 and upwards - no upper limit," he insists. "Senior citizens are now going back to the movies in big numbers."

Geoff Gilmore, the director of the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, agrees. "These are the people who have made our kind of movies possible," he says.

What kind of movies? Films such as Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Good Night, and Good Luck, Syriana and Transamerica, which may not fit the traditional Hollywood mould but dominated this year's Oscars.

Or maybe documentaries like Fahrenheit 9/11, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low-Price and the upcoming Who Killed the Electric Car? which appeal to an audience more concerned with content and message than high-concept and CGI car-crashes.

Indeed, over-40 movie-goers are such a significant phenomenon in the US that they might even influence history. The climate-change documentary An Inconvenient Truth has done for 2000 presidential candidate Al Gore, who fronts it, what an army of Democratic spin doctors on the campaign trail could not: made him cool. Pundits reckon he is now more electable than fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton.

The MBAs approaching 60 are the generation that coined the term "movie buff". Before them, people were just cinema-goers, happy to choose from the half-dozen new flicks Hollywood offered us each week. Forty years on, the MBAs still pride themselves on their eclectic taste. Even foreign-language cinema is surfing the silver wave. Recent films such as Going South and Time to Leave have been selling tickets in a way no-one would have dreamed of ten years ago.

The new crop of grown-up films fall into three main groups. First, the "must-see" movie - which also includes the "must pretend" movie, because it's the sort of film you can't admit to not having seen. Russian Ark was an early example: who would have expected 100,000 Brits to turn out for a 90-minute lesson in Russian history? More recently, Michael Haneke's Hidden fits the bill perfectly: a film no-one understands but everyone wants to. On a recent stroll past New York's Lincoln Center, Barker says, he saw as many people clustered around the enlarged reviews on the way out, trying to understand what they'd just seen, as were queuing to get in.

Second, the "organic produce" film, which is like a mainstream movie but more refined and better for you. For instance, ultra-hip wine-buff film Sideways is essentially a road movie coupled with an acidic romantic comedy; it's When Harry Met Sally for oenophiles. And Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a Chinese martial-arts flick for an audience that grew up on westerns.

Third is the "what's up?" doc. Maybe it was Michael Moore. Maybe it was reality television revealing that non-fiction doesn't have to be boring. Documentaries with a tub to thump have recently been all the rage and junk food, gun control, spelling bees, French country schoolrooms and Arctic wildlife have all drawn surprisingly large, and noticeably older, audiences.

Not, of course, that Hollywood is about to change entirely. "Tent-pole" movies - the films around which studios plan their entire season - will always be the big earners. Superman Returns, a decade in gestation, has duly busted blocks both here and in the US: if nothing else, Hollywood knows how to pull in the opening-weekend crowds.

But it costs a lot to do so, and not all this year's tent-pole movies have managed to hold up the roof: Mission: Impossible III took $100 million (£54 million) less than Mission: Impossible; Poseidon sank.

The alarm bells aren't ringing yet, but Hollywood is checking the connections. And one answer is to make less expensive movies with a clearly identifiable audience.

Older audiences want to see a different kind of film. Maybe, as Norma Desmond once said, the movies have gotten smaller. But might not they be getting better, too?

After Garfield 2 (out this week), the only way is up.

  18/07/2006. The Scotsman.