- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 22, 2003

NEW YORK — Mary Ellen Armstrong went years without going to the movies, except for the occasional G-rated picture with her three children.

These days, with her children practically grown, she has been seeing nearly every film that is showing, including the romantic comedy "A Guy Thing" and the Oscar-nominated "Catch Me If You Can."

"I have always liked going to the movies, but when you are raising a family, it is something you put on the back burner. It is not a priority," said Mrs. Armstrong, a 46-year-old registered nurse from Winchester, Mass.

Mrs. Armstrong and her baby boomer peers, those 76 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964, now have more time to go to the movies.

Movie theater attendance rose by 8 percent last year, double the 4 percent gain in 2001 and up from a 3.5 percent decline in 2000, according to Exhibitor Relations Co., which tracks box office attendance and sales figures. Many in the industry attribute that jump largely to baby boomers.

"If you create a movie that appeals to the boomers, they will come out and see it. You have to give them a good reason. They won't fall for the marketing like the teens will," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations.

His company doesn't track demographic trends, such as movie attendance by age group, but Mr. Dergarabedian said that anecdotally boomer attendance is strong, although it lags the industry's core audience of teens and twentysomethings.

Robert Bucksbaum, president of Reel Source, which tracks the box office and polls moviegoers, said boomers account for about one-third of moviegoers, up from about 25 percent five years ago.

He said studios are working to attract boomers, putting out films of interest to an older, smarter crowd rather than focusing only on the special-effect-heavy blockbusters for teens.

"Just look at adult-oriented movies out there. … It is the adult-oriented films that are taking the box office by storm these days. Films like 'Chicago.' You couldn't pay a kid under 18 to see that movie," Mr. Bucksbaum said.

Indeed, boomers' influence is seen mostly in the success of independent films or more critically acclaimed pictures such as "Chicago," Mr. Dergarabedian said.

"The boomer audience reads reviews. The boomer generation definitely fuels the success of smaller, smart films," he said.

Joan Neubauer said she has been finding more interesting prospects in the movie listings.

"For a long time there were no movies out there I wanted to see," said Mrs. Neubauer, a 51-year-old writer and publisher in Georgetown, Texas.

She sees several movies a month, whereas she used to never go. The next movie on her list: "Gangs of New York," the epic nominated for 10 Oscars.

Mrs. Neubauer also said there are more interesting roles for aging actors with whom boomers identify.

"There are juicier roles for the 'older actor,' " she said.

Some boomer-age actors have landed more screen time and more notice. For example, Julianne Moore, 42, has been nominated for best actress for her role in "Far From Heaven" and for best supporting actress for "The Hours."

"Now the actors and actresses in their baby boomer years have more parts, more parts with meat, so to speak. They are the main characters. They are not just the moms and dads of the [main] character," said Carole Ferrill, an independent film producer and state president of the Florida Motion Pictures and Television Association.

But for the most part, boomers say the quality of movies isn't why they are heading to movies as they did when they were younger.

They have always enjoyed the movies and there have always been movies they could identify with. This is the generation that "The Big Chill" was about, after all.

The reason baby boomers are going to the movies more is simply because they have the time. Many of them are done with, or nearly done with, shuffling their children to soccer practice and dance recitals.

"We do go to the movies a little more now," said Barbara Rosenthal, 50, of Houston. "We are empty nesters. That might have something to do with it."

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