Actresses over 60 are the new box-office powerhouses

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Sally Field and Michael Showalter On "Hello, My Name Is Doris"

On August 12 — the moment in the summer movie-release calendar when blockbuster season traditionally gives way to blockbuster-fatigue season — Paramount Pictures will release Meryl Streep's new movie FlorenceFoster Jenkins, a period comedy-drama about a famously incompetent and famously undeterrable aspiring soprano. The date is not an accident: Streep is a veteran of August, when her movies step in to pick up the disheartened and franchise-weary; this is roughly the same weekend that brought her to us in Ricki and the Flash (2015), Hope Springs (2012), and Julie & Julia (2009).

But this release, a modestly budgeted indie (Paramount acquired it after it was shot) feels slightly different: Streep, at 67, is no longer an outlier defying all conventional wisdom about the box-office viability of an actress north of 50; she's part of a trend. It began a little more than a year ago, when I'll See You in My Dreams, a tiny independent drama from a fledgling company starring the then-72-year-old Blythe Danner, a well-liked actress with no box-office track record whatsoever, grossed an unexpectedly strong $7.4 million in theaters. Last September, another indie, Grandma, with Lily Tomlin (76), took in $7 million as well. And the beginning of 2016 brought Maggie Smith (81) in the British import The Lady in the Van ($10 million), Helen Mirren (70) in the drone thriller Eye in the Sky ($18.7 million), and Sally Field (69) in the comedy-drama Hello, My Name Is Doris ($14.4 million).

These aren't blockbuster numbers, to be sure — the total U.S. grosses of those five films combined don't add up to what even a mid-level franchise movie like Star Trek Beyond made in its first weekend. On the other hand, profit is profit, and I very much doubt any of these distributors is complaining. Indie grosses are measured on a different scale, and on that scale, the numbers for movies driven by older women aren't good — they're great. For some perspective: Of the more than 100 films to show at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival a year and a half ago, most of those that were actually released grossed less than $1 million, and only six grossed more than $6 million. Two of them were Danner's and Tomlin's. Or, to yardstick it another way, these numbers are either comparable to or way ahead of what 2016's buzziest art-house success, The Lobster, has grossed, and they have left many 2016 indies that were intended to skew younger — Swiss Army Man, The Neon Demon, Green Room, Sing Street — in the dust.

See photos of Meryl Streep through the years:

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Meryl Streep, American actress born in Summit, New Jersey, who has starred and acted in many award-winning films. (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)
The American actress Meryl Streep. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Meryl Streep and baby son Henry during Meryl Streep Sighting at JFK Airport - January 9, 1980 at JFK Airport in New York, United States. (Photo by Tom Wargacki/WireImage)
American actress Meryl Streep on the set of the film 'The French Lieutenant's Woman', 1980. (Photo by John Bulmer/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 08: Actress Meryl Streep attends the 'Into The Woods' world premiere at the Ziegfeld Theater on December 8, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Jim Spellman/WireImage)
The bridesmaid Linda, played by Meryl Streep in a scene of The Deer Hunter by Michael Cimino, glances at John Cazale, guest to a Russian Wedding into an American Orthodox church together with Chuck Aspegren and Robert De Niro. Cleveland (USA), 1978. (Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)
Holocaust -- Aired 04/16/1978 - 04/19/1978 -- Pictured: Meryl Streep as Inga Helms Weiss (Photo by Jessica Burstein/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Meryl Streep and Husband Don Gummer during Woody Allen's New Years Eve Party at Harkness House in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
NEW YORK CITY - DECEMBER 17: Actress Meryl Streep attends the 'Kramer vs. Kramer' New York City Premiere on December 17, 1979 at Loews Astor Plaza in New York City. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
Actress Meryl Streep is shown at the seventh annual Los Angeles Film Critics Awards dinner in Beverly Hills, Ca., on Jan. 13, 1982. Streep won the best actress award for her role in "The French Lieutenant's Woman." (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
Meryl Streep during Wrap-Up Party for 'She-Devil' - July 7, 1989 at Caroline's Comedy Club in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
American actress Meryl Streep puts her hair back as she poses on the terrace of the Festival Palace, during the Film Festival in Cannes, France, on May 13, 1989. Streep is promoting her recent picture "A Cry in the Dark." (AP Photo/Gilbert Tourte)
American actress Meryl Streep flashes a smile as she walks down the red carpet prior to the premiere screening of her latest motion picture "The Bridges of Madison County," at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, Calif., May 30, 1995. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)
NEW YORK CITY - NOVEMBER 9: Actress Meryl Streep attends the 'Dancing at Lughnasa' New York City Premiere on November 9, 1998 at Sony Theatres Lincoln Square in New York City. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
Meryl Streep during Meryl Streep Receives 2,119th Walk of Fame Star - September 16, 1998 at Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California, United States. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
397358 01: Actress Meryl Streep arrives at the 11th Annual 'A Magical Evening' Gala November 12, 2001 at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, NY. The benefit raises funds for the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation. (Photo by Lawrence Lucier/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 10: Actress Meryl Streep enters the 'Late Show With David Letterman' taping at the Ed Sullivan Theater on December 10, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Ray Tamarra/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 21: Meryl Streep and Preston Whiteway attend the 14th annual Monte Cristo Award at The Edison Ballroom on April 21, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Walter McBride/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 21: Honoree actress Meryl Streep attends the 14th annual Monte Cristo Award at The Edison Ballroom on April 21, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images)
BLOOMINGTON, IN - APRIL 16: Academy Award winner, Meryl Streep, received a Conferral Honorary Degree from Indiana University President Michael A. McRobbie at Indiana University Auditorium on April 16, 2014 in Bloomington, Indiana. (Photo by Ron Hoskins/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 09: Rob Marshall and Meryl Streep attend the The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences Hosts An Official Academy Members Screening Of INTO THE WOODS at The Academy Theatre at Lighthouse International on December 9, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences)
LOWELL, MA - APRIL 01: Meryl Streep attends 'A Conversation With Meryl Streep' presented by the University of Massachusetts Lowell Chancellor's Speaker Series at Tsongas Center on April 1, 2014 in Lowell, Massachusetts. (Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images)
LOWELL, MA - APRIL 01: Meryl Streep attends 'A Conversation With Meryl Streep' presented by the University of Massachusetts Lowell Chancellor's Speaker Series at Tsongas Center on April 1, 2014 in Lowell, Massachusetts. (Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 05: (L-R) Don Gummer and actress Meryl Streep attend the 2014 The New York Philharmonic Spring Gala featuring 'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street' at Josie Robertson Plaza at Lincoln Center on March 5, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Noam Galai/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 08: Actress Meryl Streep attends the world premiere of 'Into the Woods' at Ziegfeld Theater on December 8, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Taylor Hill/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 08: Producer John DeLuca, producer Marc Platt, aniel Huttlestone, Meryl Streep and Ben Platt attend the world premiere of 'Into the Woods' at the Ziegfeld Theatre on December 8, 2014 in New York City. The stars came out for the world premiere of ÒInto the WoodsÓ on Monday, December 8, 2014 at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York. Director Rob Marshall, the all star cast including Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Christine Baranski, Tracey Ullman andÊlegendary composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim and writer James Lapine were all celebrating the cinematic event, bringing thehumorousÊand heartfelt musical to the screen. ÊÒInto the WoodsÓÊÊproduced by Rob Marshall, John DeLuca, Marc Platt and Callum McDougallÊopens in theaters nationwideÊon December 25, 2014. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 25: (EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE) Meryl Streep poses backstage at the hit musical 'The Last Ship' on Broadway at The Neil Simon Theater on November 25, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 09: Meryl Streep attends 'My Old Lady' Premiere at Museum of Modern Art on September 9, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Mark Sagliocco/FilmMagic)
US President Barack Obama presents the Medal of Freedom to actress Meryl Streep during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on November 24, 2014 in Washington, DC. The Medal of Freedom is the country highest civilian honor. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Actresses Meryl Streep (L) and Marlo Thomas arrive for the Medal of Freedom presentation ceremony in the East Room of the White House on November 24, 2014 in Washington, DC. The Medal of Freedom is the country highest civilian honor. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - JUNE 06: Actresses Diane Lane (L) and Meryl Streep attend the 2014 AFI Life Achievement Award: A Tribute to Jane Fonda at the Dolby Theatre on June 5, 2014 in Hollywood, California. Tribute show airing Saturday, June 14, 2014 at 9pm ET/PT on TNT. (Photo by Michael Buckner/WireImage)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - JUNE 06: Actress Meryl Streep speaks onstage at the 2014 AFI Life Achievement Award: A Tribute to Jane Fonda at the Dolby Theatre on June 5, 2014 in Hollywood, California. Tribute show airing Saturday, June 14, 2014 at 9pm ET/PT on TNT. (Photo by Michael Buckner/WireImage)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - JUNE 05: Actress Meryl Streep speaks onstage during the 2014 AFI Life Achievement Award: A Tribute to Jane Fonda at the Dolby Theatre on June 5, 2014 in Hollywood, California. Tribute show airing Saturday, June 14, 2014 at 9pm ET/PT on TNT. (Photo by Kevin Winter/WireImage)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - JUNE 05: Actors Cameron Diaz (L) and Meryl Streep attend the 2014 AFI Life Achievement Award: A Tribute to Jane Fonda at the Dolby Theatre on June 5, 2014 in Hollywood, California. Tribute show airing Saturday, June 14, 2014 at 9pm ET/PT on TNT. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage)
Actress Meryl Streep accepts the 2014 Monte Cristo Award at the Edison Ballroom, on Monday, April 21, 2014, in New York. (Photo by Luiz C. Ribeiro/Invision/AP)
Meryl Streep attends the premiere of "Into The Woods" at the Ziegfeld Theatre on Monday, Dec. 8, 2014, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
Meryl Streep, left, and Don Gummer arrive at the Oscars on Sunday, Feb. 22, 2015, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)
Actress Meryl Streep attends the Sixth Annual Women in the World Summit opening night at David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center on Wednesday, April 22, 2015, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
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It is not surprising that five actresses with decades of great work to their credit would have fans, but the fact that those fans — especially in the era of streaming and VOD — would be so willing to leave their homes and head for theaters comes as a jolt. The very notion of mobile, active, committed older entertainment consumers is a bad fit for a pop culture–industrial complex that has long been demographically indifferent to them. In television, 18- to 49-year-olds are the prized quarry, and viewers over 50 (or 60) are treated by advertisers as people who never buy anything but adult diapers and medic-alert systems and sit in their adjustable beds leaning forward with ear horns to make sure they hear the list of dangerous side effects in the commercials.

None of those stereotypes, however, should matter in the non-advertising world of independent movies, where, after all, a 65-year-old's Fandango dollars are worth exactly as much as a 15-year-old's. This boomlet should be especially welcome news since the economic narrative for art-house indies for the last few years has not been great. Foreign-language films that might, a decade ago, have grossed $2 million or $3 million in theaters now take in $500,000; and for "breakout" indie hits, $5 million is the new $20 million. In the movie business, the prevailing wisdom has it that everything is migrating inexorably toward your living room, your laptop, your pad, or your phone, and also that an older audience that's pickier about its entertainment choices and more mindful of leisure-time management is not worth chasing. That's one reason big-studio movies are now geared so completely either to young adults (a demographic susceptible to advertising, open to being in a large group, undemanding about atmosphere, and eager for instant gratification), or to people with kids (desperate for activities that will keep them occupied). They're happy to go out; everyone else is considered too hard to lure.

See photos of Helen Mirren through the years:

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NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 07: Helen Mirren, winner of the award for Best Lead Actress in a Play for 'The Audience,' poses in the press room during the 2015 Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall on June 7, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 07: Helen Mirren accepts the award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play for “The Audience” onstage during the 2015 Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall on June 7, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions)
FILE - This June 3, 2014 file photo shows British actress Helen Mirren at the Glamour Magazine Women Of The Year Awards at Berkeley Square Gardens in central London. Producers of Peter Morgan's play said Wednesday, Aug. 6, that Mirren will return to Broadway this spring as Elizabeth II in "The Audience." Previews in New York start Feb. 17 and it will run through June at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, directed by two-time Tony Award winner Stephen Daldry. (Photo by Joel Ryan/Invision/AP, File)
Megan Ellison, Helen Mirren and David O. Russell in the audience at the 25th annual Producers Guild of America (PGA) Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by John Shearer/Invision for Producers Guild/AP Images)
"House Full" sign for The Audience with Helen Mirren at Gielgud Theatre, London
LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 05: (EMBARGOED FOR PUBLICATION IN UK TABLOID NEWSPAPERS UNTIL 48 HOURS AFTER CREATE DATE AND TIME. MANDATORY CREDIT PHOTO BY DAVE M. BENETT/GETTY IMAGES REQUIRED) Dame Helen Mirren (C) bows at the curtain call during the press night performance of 'The Audience' at the Gielgud Theatre on March 5, 2013 in London, England. (Photo by Dave M. Benett/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 05: (EMBARGOED FOR PUBLICATION IN UK TABLOID NEWSPAPERS UNTIL 48 HOURS AFTER CREATE DATE AND TIME. MANDATORY CREDIT PHOTO BY DAVE M. BENETT/GETTY IMAGES REQUIRED) Dame Helen Mirren bows at the curtain call during the press night performance of 'The Audience' at the Gielgud Theatre on March 5, 2013 in London, England. (Photo by Dave M. Benett/Getty Images)
FILE - This is a Sunday, April 28, 2013 file photo of Helen Mirren winner of Best Actress Award for The Audience in the press room at the Olivier Awards 2013 at the Royal opera House in London. Mirren's award-winning performance as Queen Elizabeth II in "The Audience" will be beamed this week from London's Gielgud Theatre to hundreds of movie theaters around the world in a live broadcast. (Photo by Joel Ryan/Invision/AP, File)
This undated file image provided by Boneau/Bryan-Brown shows Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II in a promotional photo for Peter Morgan's play "The Audience." National Theatre Live, which broadcasts stage shows from England to movie screens worldwide, said Monday, June 17, 2013, that its June 13 live broadcast of Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II in the play "The Audience" has captured its largest audience to date. (AP Photo/Boneau/Bryan-Brown, Johan Persson, File)
Helen Mirren winner of Best Actress Award for The Audience seen in the press room at the Olivier Awards 2013 at the Royal opera House in London on Sunday, April 28th, 2013. (Photo by Joel Ryan/Invision/AP)
LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 05: (EMBARGOED FOR PUBLICATION IN UK TABLOID NEWSPAPERS UNTIL 48 HOURS AFTER CREATE DATE AND TIME. MANDATORY CREDIT PHOTO BY DAVE M. BENETT/GETTY IMAGES REQUIRED) Dame Helen Mirren attends an after party following the press night performance of 'The Audience' at One Whitehall Place on March 5, 2013 in London, England. (Photo by Dave M. Benett/Getty Images)
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 09: Dame Helen Mirren sighting leaving the Geilgud Theatre following her performance in The Audience on May 9, 2013 in London, England. (Photo by Alan Chapman/FilmMagic)
British actress Helen Mirren, right, reacts to a sign addressed to her following a ceremony to award her a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
Actress Helen Mirren talks to the audience at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Friday, Jan. 26, 2007, as recipient of the festival's Outstanding Performance of the Year Award for her Best Actress Oscar-nominated role in the film "The Queen." (AP Photo/Michael A. Mariant)
Actress Helen Mirren signs autographs at her Hollywood Walk of Fame Ceremony on January 3, 2013 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Todd Williamson/Invision for Fox Searchlight/AP Images)
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But this trend flies in the face of that; it is a reminder that older audiences actually have a lifelong habit of going to the movies that they're not particularly interested in shedding, a kind of muscle-memory loyalty to the theatrical experience that, given the right actor in the right movie at the right price, may make them the most potent consumer force in indie movies right now. (Last year's single biggest Sundance hit, the amiable amble A Walk in the Woods, starred Robert Redford and Nick Nolte. If you're under 35, you've probably never heard of it, but it grossed more than Ex Machina.)

These movies aren't all in the adorable-oldsters mode of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel either (although any indie company would fall to its knees in thanks for that film's $33 million U.S. gross). Eye in the Sky is steeped in current geopolitics about the ethics of war technology; Grandma deals with abortion rights and leaves no ambiguity about where it stands; Hello, My Name Is Doris is frank about loneliness, sexual desire, and — perhaps this hits too close to the bone — society's tendency to write off older women as dear little "characters" without passions or aspirations of their own. No wonder the movie struck a chord with an audience that's almost systematically ignored.

It would be a mistake for any part of the industry — indie or studio — to write this off as a statistical blip. And, although recognition of an undervalued audience comes with maddening slowness in the movie business, there are signs that this dawning reality is being acknowledged. Netflix, perhaps looking at the success of its own Grace and Frankie, is backing the drama Our Souls at Night, which will reunite Redford with Jane Fonda 50 years after their first movie together, and it can't be an accident that Universal, always looking to expand the reach of its Fast and Furious franchise, has added Mirren to the cast. The audience is real, and so is its appetite. And those who get it — who don't simply view this particular group of movie lovers as the "about to die" demographic — may, a few years hence, look like very smart early adapters. In 1968, well before demographics were a subject of serious discussion at the studios, Variety reported the results of a study that showed 48 percent of American moviegoers were 24 or younger. For the middle-aged men who then ran Hollywood and thought they were making movies for themselves, the news was revelatory. Baby-boomers — the pig in the python — were coming of age, and over the next 15 years, the way movies were conceived, made, and marketed would undergo a revolution as a result. Now, almost 50 years later, that demographic is coming of old age, and making itself heard again. And if anyone wants it, they've still got money to spend.

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