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'Cowboys' Guns Down Age Myth

The movie's success demonstrates the market for films appealing to adults, bucking the youth-centric trend.

August 25, 2000|CLAUDIA ELLER

"Space Cowboys" was supposed to be a big flop as far as most of Hollywood was concerned. Conventional wisdom suggests that in an era when youth-appeal films are driving the box office, those aimed at older audiences don't have a shot at doing much business--especially if they're cast with aging movie stars.

The buzz before Warner Bros.' Aug. 4 release was: Who wants to see "Grumpy Old Men in Space?"

Not only did "Space Cowboys," starring Clint Eastwood (who also directed), Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and James Garner, open to $18.1 million amid mostly rave reviews, it has hung in there with a minimal drop-off in business thanks to strong word of mouth.

The film, which Warner sources confirm cost just north of $80 million, has so far grossed about $54 million and is projected to do in the $85-million range domestically. Once all revenues from the international market, where Eastwood is huge, and other ancillaries are tallied, the movie could well be profitable. Eastwood and Jones, who each get a cut of the gross starting from the first dollar at the box office, will see a nice payday.

"All we read and talk about is the domination of the under-30 moviegoers," said Alan Horn, president of Warner Bros. "The implicit assumption is that if you have a movie not designed for that audience, you're in big trouble."

With "Space Cowboys," Horn said, "The older demo has spoken."

In fact, amid such youth-driven hits as "X-Men," "Scary Movie" and "Gladiator," this summer has seen the success of several other adult-appeal films. They include Warner's "The Perfect Storm," DreamWorks/Fox's "What Lies Beneath," starring Harrison Ford, and Columbia Pictures' "The Patriot," starring Mel Gibson.

Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, says that contrary to popular belief, "there is a large market out there for films that appeal to older people."

In 1999, MPAA data show, moviegoers older than 40 accounted for 31% of admissions, compared with 41% for the 12-to-24 age group. But when 30-to-39-year-olds are added to the 40-plus group, the over-30 crowd accounted for nearly half of all admissions (49%). Valenti said that in the last five years, moviegoers older than 40 have accounted for 30% to 34% of admissions.

Still, as data show, the core moviegoing audience remains 16-to-20-year-olds. They are the most frequent moviegoers (going at least once a month), therefore Hollywood's most sought-after audience.

The under-25 segment will go back to see movies repeatedly if they love them (which tells you why "Titanic" was such a mega-hit), whereas older moviegoers don't typically see the same movie twice. That might explain why a film such as "Space Cowboys" is a solid hit but won't likely gross $100 million or more.

Paul Dergaraedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co., says the film's successful hold at the box office reflects both strong word of mouth and the "moviegoing habits of older audiences, which don't necessarily run out and see something the first weekend but discover a film over time."

Knowing how review-driven and word-of-mouth-dependent the movie would be, Warner distribution president Dan Fellman finally persuaded Eastwood--who doesn't normally preview his movies--to sneak "Space Cowboys" the weekend before it opened. The only other film Eastwood had ever agreed to sneak was "In the Line of Fire," a 1993 Columbia Pictures release produced by Horn's former company, Castle Rock Entertainment.

In making his argument for "Space Cowboys," Fellman recalled telling Eastwood, "Older audiences attend sneaks more than younger ones," who are usually preoccupied with running out to see the hottest flick of the moment.

"From our experience of knowing how good the film was, we felt that the best type of advertising was the movie itself, if we could just get it out there," Fellman said. "And he agreed, for the first time."

Horn said that whereas Warner sold "Perfect Storm" as a thrill-ride action picture, much like its 1996 release "Twister," "Space Cowboys" was different because it's a character-driven story with older movie stars "aimed squarely at the mainstream older audience." It's more similar to Warner's "Grumpy Old Men" movies, starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, which each grossed in the $70-million range.

Horn said that initially, Eastwood, 70, had "expressed reservations about doing the film," worried audiences might not embrace him in the role of an aging astronaut. It helped, Horn said, that in 1998, pioneering astronaut John Glenn, at 77, went back into space.

As a director, Eastwood also had concerns about undertaking a big special-effects movie, never having done one. Such films require much longer preparation and post-production time than he's used to. Eastwood--one of Hollywood's most efficient and controlling filmmakers, who won best director and best picture Oscars for "Unforgiven"--has a reputation for bringing his movies in on time and on budget.

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