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If studios want boffo box office, they should try appealing to baby boomers

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The news out of Las Vegas last week was encouraging, and it had nothing to do with slot machines, Celine Dion or cheap shrimp.

It had everything to do with movies.

The reason going to the movies was the centre of attention in a city better known for gambling and live entertainment was that Las Vegas was the site of CinemaCon, the official convention of the National Association of Theater Owners. The organization, headquartered in Washington, D.C., represents 30,000 movie screens in the United States, as well as theatres in 50 other countries.

Although this yearly meeting is only in its third year, it already has grown to be an important gathering of theatre owners, studio executives and talent.

"Talent" is a movie industry word for actors, actresses and directors. I'll use it in a sentence: "The talent never pays for lunch."

This year's CinemaCon was held in Caesars Palace, and the activities ranged from major announcements (Fast & Furious 7 will be released on July 11, 2014, even though Fast & Furious 6 won't come out until May 24, 2013) and the unveiling of highly anticipated movie trailers (Man of Steel and The Great Gatsby were the big attractions this year) to celebrity sightings (Brad Pitt showed up unexpectedly to promote his summer zombie movie World War Z, and Johnny Depp surprised the audience to plug his role as the Masked Man's faithful companion Tonto in The Lone Ranger).

These activities are intended to titillate the fanboys and motivate the theatre owners to start stockpiling popcorn oil.

But if you can keep your head from exploding over the excitement of it all, you might hear some pretty interesting tidbits during speeches before the massed attendees.

For instance, John Fithian, the association's chief executive, depressed the gathering when he announced that box office revenues were down 12 per cent during the first quarter of 2013, and then pointed an accusatory finger at the studio representatives in the audience.

He laid blame for the plunging revenues at their feet, chiding Hollywood for producing too many R-rated movies and not enough PG-13 movies that appeal to families.

"The product selection in the first part of 2013 was dismal," the theatre executive said. He added that last year, there were twice as many PG-13 movies as R movies.

"Americans have stated their clear choice," he declared. "Give them more choices for all ages, and they'll buy more tickets."

Even more interesting was what emerged from a discussion called "Movie-going in the 21st Century: A Look at the Evolution of the Average American Moviegoer."

I know it sounds terribly academic but it was anything but boring.

Catherine Paura, a movie industry researcher, urged Hollywood not to forget movie audiences that fall outside the treasured teen crowd. In particular, she pleaded with movie studios to make more movies for baby boomers (those very special people born between the years 1946 and 1964). Apparently, if you were born in 1945 or 1965, you're plain out of luck.

"We (baby boomers) have not stopped going to the movies," she reminded the group. "Young people, because of technology and because of the different ways they can entertain themselves, are not as habituated to going to the movies as the older generation.

"We feel as if we invented going to the movies. It's a part of who we are."

In other words, baby boomers go to the movies specifically to watch movies. Young people go to the movies to kick the back of my chair, chew gum real loud and text their friends sitting three rows behind them, leaving the glow of their cellphone screens on throughout the movie for no better reason than to annoy me.

The significance of these speeches at CinemaCon is that it signals a change in attitude. It appears as if the movie industry is finally listening to the pleas of an audience that has been largely ignored for decades. We keep telling them that we'd support movies without robots, teen vampires and 3D glasses, but they never listen.

Now that evidence is mounting that the younger generation is more interested in downloading movies on their cellphones for free, and older generations actually enjoy the movie theatre experience, and might even buy a tub of popcorn, the studios are getting smarter.

Wait, I give them too much credit. They're not getting smarter; they're getting desperate. They have a lot of product to sell, and they need someone to pay for that product. Baby boomers are probably the last generation that doesn't mind paying for product. All we ask is that the product be good.

You know what I'm talking about -- plot, characters and emotion. We don't even mind an R rating. Just don't insult us. Nobody wants to pay to be insulted.

-- Orange County Register

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 27, 2013 E1

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