Every Age, Everywhere, All at Once: Embracing 50-plus Tastemakers

There are clear signs that the entertainment industry is finally embracing and representing the 50-plus demographic.

By Martha Boudreau, Executive Vice President & Chief Communications and Marketing Officer, AARP

For years, the conventional wisdom in the entertainment industry was that youth is king. From actors and actresses trying to make themselves look younger to marketers obsessed with appealing to young audiences, those over 50 were treated as an after-thought.

But there is a sea change underway and nowhere was it more clear than during the recent awards season, when Jamie Lee Curtis (64), Michelle Yeoh (60), Brendan Fraser (54) and Ke Huy Quan (51) walked away with the best acting Oscars. It solidified an emerging trend: Older adults are becoming the leading tastemakers on both sides of the camera.

To an extent not seen in generations, Hollywood, and the larger entertainment culture, is being driven by the perspectives and sensibilities of people over 50. Far from trying to obscure their age, today’s stars are flaunting the benefits that come with getting older.

Yeoh said it best when she accepted her Oscar, “And ladies, don’t’ let anybody tell you you are ever past your prime. Never give up.“

There are clear signs that the entertainment industry is finally embracing and representing the 50-plus demographic.

Don’t Call it a Comeback

Fraser and Curtis both acknowledged that they began their careers making much different types of movies than those that won them the Oscar gold. But their success later in life doesn’t represent a renewal as much as the fruits of maturity.

Older actors are able to tap into a well of complexity and subtlety that resonates with audiences of all ages. Actors are leaning into the advantages of life experience and taking on more interesting, multi-dimensional roles. They exude confidence and wisdom, freeing them to take more risks.

As Fraser said at the 21st annual Movies for Grownups® ceremony earlier this year, he never would have been able to tackle the role he played in The Whale at the age of 25 or 30.

Emphasis on serious storytelling

While the flash and pizzazz of the Marvel Universe or the always-on-the-edge-of-your-seat stunts on display in the Fast and Furious franchise will always have a place on the silver screen, there has been a return to the art of storytelling in a way that reflects the sensibilities of older audiences.

Oscar-worthy films like Women Talking, Tar and The Banshees of Inisherin feature a quieter tone that centers on relationships amongst adults and the challenges that people face later in life.

Rediscovering the ‘four quadrant” hit

While movies featuring actors over 50 strike a chord with their cohorts, Hollywood is rediscovering an even broader truth with its renewed push for an old formula: “The Four Quadrant Hit.”

The term describes movies that appeal to the young (under 25) and older, male and female. While streaming services and the rise of prestige TV fragmented audiences into narrower and narrower slices, the unifying power of the big blockbuster declined.

With more competition to get people into theaters to watch first-run, large-budget movies, the industry is once again recognizing the value in movies that feature broad representation and resonate across age, gender and background.

The box office has spoken

This shift in focus is paying dividends.

Coming out of the pandemic, studios worried about getting people back into theaters. And Americans over 50 formed the backbone of that returning audience.

Tom Cruise (60) brought supersonic star power to propel Top Gun: Maverick to $1.5 billion in box office sales, making it the seventh highest grossing film in the U.S. ever, with 40% of the audience over 45.

Other box office winners include films like Elvis, Ticket to Paradise and Downton Abbey: A New Era, with adults 45-plus making up 45%, 48% and 63% of the audience, respectively, according to data from Comscore and AARP.

Success breeds success

The powers-that-be in Hollywood know how to read the receipts. As older audiences make it clear they want to see themselves reflected on the big screen, the studios are responding.

From the moment a movie is pitched as a concept, executives are gaming out the end result: How much does it cost and how much will it make?

As older stars appeal to older audiences, it will change which movies get made in the first place. That in turn will lead to more opportunities for actors over 50 and more proof that the formula works.

The bottom line

The last few years have opened people’s eyes to the fact that there are so many stories that haven’t been told. There is now greater representation of previously marginalized groups; Yeoh, for example, became the first woman of Asian descent to score a Best Actress Oscar.

That expanded sense of what types of movies can be made and who can be in them extends to people over 50.

Movie theaters, films and studios that recognize the power of 50-plus stars and audiences are being reminded how impactful it is to tell great stories with talent that has been burnished over time.