Hollywood "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 already grossed more than $50 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.
"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 "The Perfect Storm," "What Lies Beneath" and "The Patriot."
Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association 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 percent of admissions, compared with 41 percent 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 percent). Valenti said that in the last five years, moviegoers older than 40 have accounted for 30 percent to 34 percent of admissions.
The core moviegoing audience remains 16-to-20-year-olds because they are the most frequent moviegoers (going at least once a month).
The under-25 segment will 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.