What films are older cinemagoers watching?

16 January '17 11 Comments on What films are older cinemagoers watching?

Older audience FB image 01@0,25xFollowing the trends article at the start of the year, I have been receiving requests for more details on some of the topics I covered.  One of the six trends I noted was the ageing cinema audience, which led to a number of people asking what types of movies older audiences turn out for.

So today I’m going to show which movies are favoured by older audiences, who’s in them and the journey we take in our film choices as we age.

Pop quiz, hot shot

Before I dig into the detail, I wanted to set you a little challenge.  Each year, the BFI’s Statistical Yearbook reports which movies had a significantly above-average attendance by different types of people.

Your task is to match up each of the six groups of movies below with one of the following age segments: aged 7-14, aged 15-24, aged 25-34, aged 35-44, aged 45-54 and aged 55+.

Age of cinema audiences - answers

Try it out – it’s not as easy as it first appears, and the answer reveals something important about cinema audiences (see – we can have fun and learn at the same time!) I’ll reveal the answer at the bottom of this article.

The genres older cinemagoers are watching

Many institutions within the industry conduct audience research and exit polls, but sadly these often remain private or behind expensive paywalls.  Fortunately, there are a couple of free public places where we can find data to learn about the age of the UK cinema audience.

I’ve already mentioned the BFI (who also used to conduct exit polls, which include age data) and the other is Pearl and Dean.  They have a microsite aimed at cinema advertisers, and within that they provide audience data on the age, gender and social class of cinema-goers.  I’m not going to look at social class of cinema-goers today, but if you want me to write about it in the future, leave a message in the comments or drop me a line.

Using this data, I was able to look at 662 movies released in UK cinemas between 2005 and 2016.  I matched up the UK box office gross and split the data by genre.

Age of UK cinema audiences

The oldest age group here (i.e. those aged 45 and over) are best represented among dramas (where they make up 28% of the box office), romance (24%) and mystery (22%).  Drama has the oldest audience overall, with over 60% of cinema-goers who watch dramas being older than 25.

Horror is an interesting genre as it has almost no audience under 15 (understandably, due to BBFC ratings) but also performs poorly with older audiences.  Over half of all the people who see horror movies in the cinemas are 15 to 24 years old.

Other genres which perform poorly with older audiences are animation (13%), and sci-fi (16%) and action (16%).  It appears that many of the choices of older audiences can be summed up by looking at how close they are to the real world. The further removed a movie is from reality, the less likely older audiences are to go and see it in the cinema.

The films most popular with older cinema-goers

The movies with the highest percentage of older audience members (in this case that means over 45 years old) were Sweet And Lowdown, Mr. Turner, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Philomena and The Queen.

Movie45+ as % of audience
Sweet And Lowdown100%
Mr. Turner81%
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel81%
The Queen77%
Suite Francaise76%
Mrs. Henderson Presents75%
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen75%
The Railway Man75%
Love's Labour's Lost73%
Topsy Turvy71%
Gosford Park70%
Circle Of Friends69%
Brideshead Revisited69%
The Duchess69%
Tea With Mussolini68%
Love in the Time of Cholera68%
La Vie En Rose66%
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel66%
An Education65%
Mrs Brown63%
The Piano Teacher63%
Billy Elliot61%
Captain Corelli's Mandolin61%
Calendar Girls61%
Anna Karenina61%
Behind The Candelabra61%
An Ideal Husband60%

Dentures fill the screen

Dame judy denchI focused on the 76 films where the 45+ age segment accounted for at least half of the cinema audience. There is no doubt that the true star of this audience group is Dame Judi Dench, who appears in 9% of movies this group (i.e. seven appearances).

Other popular stars included Cate Blanchett (5 appearances), Meryl Streep (4), Maggie Smith (3), Ralph Fiennes (3) and Jim Broadbent (3).

What ageing looks like for our film choices

We can also see what ageing looks like in the movies we choose to go and see in the cinema.   The images below show the movies that were most popular with men and women, organised so the ones with the youngest audiences were on the left and the oldest on the right.

The male choices seem more focused on physical prowess and power whereas the female choices focus on relationships; starting out kissing boys (Down To You), then stripping men (Magic Mike) and ending up with masochistic, melancholic sex (The Piano Teacher).

Age of cinema audiences - ageing

I should note that these movies do not represent the most popular films, but rather than the ‘most skewed’ by gender and age. For example, the cinema audience for Any Given Sunday was heavily male (75% of the audience) and almost entirely young (91% were 15-24 years old). By contrast, The Piano Teacher was 69% female and 63% were over 45 years old.  Some movies were heavily skewed in age but not gender, such as Mr Turner which was favoured by older audiences (91% were 45+) but with a fairly even gender balance (54% female), which is why it’s not made it into the image above.

The answers to the pop quiz

If you took a few moments to answer the quiz at the start of the article you may have struggled a bit.  I have presented this question to a number of audiences over the years, including in primary schools, in my annual lecture at the NFTS and to industry professionals. No matter the environment (or how confidently people start the matching process), they often come undone when trying to understand why there are two groups seemingly suitable for the 7 to 14-year-old segment (i.e  groups C and E).

The people who rarely have a hard time answering this question are those with young children (typically in the 35-44 age bracket).  They look back wistfully at the days when they could choose what movies they went to see in the cinema.

So here are the answers:Age of cinema audiences - quiz


I’m often torn when presenting data of how certain groups of people act.  On the one hand, I’m only presenting data and the numbers are often clearly pointing to what people are choosing.  On the other hand, it’s reporting like this that reinforces stereotypes and prevents our understanding of people’s tastes from evolving.

Cinemagoers’ current choices could be a result of what is being supplied and marketed by the industry.  For example, the recent success of female-focused mainstream blockbusters has shown that the female audience were previously underserved and when they’re offered more targeted options, they take them.

The film industry is often among the last to notice the shift away from stereotypical audience groups.  That being said, they are still better than some. Last week, I was in Birmingham to give a talk to the National Trust and I stayed in a hotel with the following images on the toilet doors:

2017-01-11 08.32.51



  1. RoseMarie FitzSimons

    Thank you for this and all your other insightful research. I would love to see a breakdown by documentary genre if such data is available.

  2. Thanks very much for the interesting article Stephen – it mirrors our experience of 5 years running our community cinema in SE London/Kent but we’ve been surprised several times by what we can get 45+ patrons to come out for and we do audience response slips to collect their approval ratings of the films, which are very useful. We do find it hard to get them out for older films – ie pre-1980s and we’re working hard to identify ways of adding value to screenings of older films to encourage them to come. World cinema is increasingly popular and we tend to have good audiences for documentaries too. However – William Goldman’s maxim still holds true – we had a free film festival in our first year and had programmed an outdoor ‘Mama Mia: Sing-along” against “Seven Psychopaths”. I greeted one of our older patrons at the door, a lovely lady who was probably over 70 and said that I hoped she’d enjoy the sing-along only to be told, “Don’t be silly – I’m here for ‘Seven Psychopaths’!” – ‘Nobody knows anything’ indeed…

  3. I think you’re missing something in this research that is crucial, and this type of error is contributing to a mismatch between older audiences and the movies being made for them.

    By not correcting for box office or using hard numbers rather than percentages (or indexing percentages against the older audiences’ portion of the moviegoing population), we’re getting a skewed picture of what appeals to older audiences. Though they may be a smaller percentage of major blockbuster films (that tend to be sci-fi, fantasy, etc), these films still represent significantly higher ticket sales among those demographics.

    This is an important part of the data to investigate because there’s some evidence that Boomers continue to find pop culture most appealing – and that they’re significantly less interested in the films that appeal most to the Silent Generation. Lacking hard data that can prove their box office value for such films, the market continues to produce films that are more appealing to the Silent generation that are meant to appeal to Boomers. This taste mismatch is holding back the industry from better meeting demand among an audience that has increasing amounts of leisure time.

    1. Kris, that is a damn good point!

      You’re right that using box office figures (or admissions) would provide a much better result. I don’t have admissions data for all these movies but I do have UK box office grosses for the movies after 2005. Consequently, I have just crunched the new data and updated the article.

      Overall, it didn’t change the findings very much, other than fantasy moved up in popularity with older audiences, from poor to middling.

      I should add that there is still a slight margin for error as older cinema tickets are often discounted (see my previous research on the topic) but I don’t have any way for accounting for that.

      Thanks for chipping in, Kris. I’ve always said that some of the best ideas on this blog come from readers and your contribution made this article better. Thanks!

      1. Thanks Stephen- It’s good to see the data improve, but the point I was actually (clumsily) trying to make is that the size of the older markets are misrepresented by statistics of the percentage of ticket sales per genre.

        For example, if we were to estimate the number of people 45+ who saw Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (the biggest domestic live-action fantasy film in 2016), it would be 4,835,079 (if we project that they mostly paid full price rather than had discounts).

        Conversely, if we project the number of people 45+ who saw Me Before You (the biggest domestic romantic drama in 2016), it comes to 1,567,806 (again, projecting at full price).

        When we start to look at the numbers in this way, it suggests that while it is likely a wiser idea to market a romance to an older audience, the actual opportunity in the market appears to be tilted towards fantasy – more people 45+ saw the fantasy movie than the romance.

        This is indicative of a fundamental shift in the marketplace, and suggests that there would be a more significant audience for a fantasy film that was targeted at exclusively 45+ than there would be for a romance.

        It upends our notions of what movies should be made in order to entice older audiences with more time and money into developing a weekly movie habit that would increase annual admissions. There is a persistent idea that older audiences prefer relatively boring fare – it’s why they’re the usual target audience for prestige pics. But what the data actually indicates is that popular fare made at budgets that would allow them to exclusively target boomers is a significantly more viable proposition.

        1. Ah, I see what you’re saying. And you could well be right – we can’t truly know until more content is offered and we measure the uptake.

          From my point of view, I’d say that this doesn’t necessarily mean what you’re suggesting it does for the industry. You may be right from an audience perspective but it’s not very easy for the industry just make more such films to fill the demand.

          Firstly, we need to take into account cost. Fantasy films are typically are much more expensive than most films, with big budgets with then necessitate even larger marketing spends. Therefore, they could sell more tickets but end up worse off when compared to a smaller film with a lower cost and lower sales. Audiences pay pretty much the same price for all movies but the industry has to factor in the different costs and risks of bringing different films to market.

          Secondly, I suspect there is a scalability issue; i.e. if you made many more, the average performance would drop considerably. My reasons for this thought are that the vast majority of fantasy movies released in cinemas benefit from having a pre-existing audience. (i.e. LOTR, Narnia, JK Rowling’s universe, etc). This is not desperately scalable as there are not many such literary universes with mass appeal to mine.

          But this is just my opinion. You’re certainly right that the older audience segment is not only interested in the more sedate fare. RED performed very well for the 45+ audience and I suspect without that older demographic there would never have been a RED 2, which we clearly aimed towards that audience.

          Hopefully, time will bring more examples of what older audiences really want to see and the industry will respond accordingly.

  4. Great work as usual Stephen, thank you for providing this insight. I’m now in the oldie age bracket but don’t like typical oldie films. Do cinemas collect info on the age of customers? Do you think subtitled/captioned/audio described shows would attract more oldies? Our society is ageing. And with ageing, loss of some hearing and sight is inevitable.

  5. the average age of parents is in the mid 20s not 35-45, most peoples kids are more than old enough to not need to be taken to the cinema to see kids films by the time their parents are AMA (by 45 most people kids are in their late teens/20s)

    1. Hi RB. I’m not sure that’s right. I don’t have the data to hand but we need to consider how old the parent are when their kids are of an age to have the focus and interest in a trip to the cinema. If that’s five to ten then very few of those parents will be in their mid 20s (as it would mean they conceived their first kid in their late teens). That does happen but I would doubt that it would be the norm or the average. I’ll see if I can find ONS data on it as I could be wrong.

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