Seniors Take 'Cocoon' to Heart

Times Staff Writer

They are a familiar social institution, these weekend movie theater lines jammed with teen-agers waiting an hour or more to catch the hot shows of the season.

But for one film this summer, the lines have a decidedly mature look. "Cocoon," with its cast of senior citizens exploring the shift from old age to immortality, is attracting that rarest of movie audiences: older people, sometimes with their canes and wheelchairs.

In fact, according to 20th Century Fox's marketing president David Weitzner, the film has attracted such a marked share (60%) of older moviegoers--in movie parlance, older means "25 and over"--that its advertising was modified recently to lure more of the youth audience.

"Cocoon's" television ads, for instance, now emphasize the picture's cast of aliens, which they did not initially. The extraterrestrials' mother ship and other "hardware" devices are now revealed along with a glowing hand on a doorknob and the blinding light underneath the aliens' full-body masks--all of which "would appeal to a younger audience" according to Weitzner.

But what is attracting their grandparents?

Why is the older generation suddenly willing not only to go to the movies but often wait in long lines to do so? In record-setting heat, no less, and at theaters that do not feature senior citizen discounts.

"I came because it's not about teen-agers," said Fred Robertson, a 55-year-old Torrance insurance underwriter. "There are teen-agers in the movie but it also has older people in it and we like that. It portrays older people in a good sense. For once they're doing something good about middle age."

'We Are a Big Group'

"We relate to the cast," said 63-year-old Helen Schultz, as she was about to watch the film with her 61-year-old friend, Tess Joseph, at a Redondo Beach theater. "I get to see Don Ameche again and I like Hume Cronyn. We (seniors) are a big group and a lot of us have time and money to spend on movies. But usually they don't make anything we want to see."

Many older moviegoers, however, indicated that the age of the cast members or the picture's Fountain of Youth plot had nothing to do with their choice.

Eighty-two-year-old Florence Katz, for one, said she came because her granddaughter brought her--and that the last movie the two attended was "Breakin,' " the break-dancing film.

"I loved 'Breakin' ' and I enjoyed 'Cocoon' very much," she giggled on her way out of a Westwood theater. "I have arthritis and so I liked seeing the cast walk nicely which I can't do so well (more laughter) . . . but I didn't come because there were old people in the movie. I came because I love to be with young people."

Evelyn Zuckerman was also not influenced by the cast or the plot. Standing first in a round-the-block line at a Westwood theater on Saturday night, she revealed that she had a hard time convincing her husband of 48 years to go to see "Cocoon" because of its older cast and presumed attraction for older moviegoers.

"My husband (Sol) said, 'I don't want to see it. All the people who are going to see it are older people,' " she claimed. "When you get to a certain age, seeing people of your own age is not all that great."

Then why did they come?

"The people in my French class had seen it and all of them liked it but one, a young woman who found it depressing. I hope it's better about older people than 'On Golden Pond' was."

At a similarly extensive, sold-out line in Eagle Rock, the first woman in line also said she and her husband would not come to see any movie because of a preponderance of older actors.

"We came because my granddaughter said it was good and funny," said Harriet Bridges. "We wouldn't come to see older actors."

"There aren't any people older than us," added her 78-year-old husband, Joe.

Seventy-four-year-old Milton Russotto, however, explained why he thought so many older people are being drawn to "Cocoon."

"Most people my age feel their lives are just about over and (that) this is a new beginning," he figured. "If it (the seniors' journey with the aliens to a planet where youth is eternal) were possible, many people would take the journey."

(Not everyone agrees. As one senior citizen complained, "So that's the ultimate solution to the problems of the elderly: Put them on a spaceship and send them to Mars.")

Along with its older audience, "Cocoon" also has a sizable younger audience, and as Fox's Weitzner emphasized, "We believe that what we have is a cross-over film with a very broad demographic that goes from young to old."

Ed Mintz, president of Cinema-Score, an audience reaction service that surveys movie audiences around the country, expects that because of both a strong "over 25" audience and a decent "under 25" audience, "Cocoon" is likely to be the third most popular of 1985's summer movies. He predicts it will finish third, after "Rambo" and "Back to the Future," and could bring in $100 million.

"Older people have not been hiding away," Mintz said of older filmgoers in general. "You always hear that movies are made for the 12- to 24-year-olds. But the point is that young people go to fewer moves than do older (25- to 34-year-olds) people. What young people do is go to a few movies and then pound the living heck out of them."

A current case in point is "Rambo," Mintz noted. "Many males under 25, actually under 20, saw 'Rambo' twice in the first five days of its release," he added. "The under-25 male may see it 10 times, but the older filmgoer will never do that. That's why (dollar-wise) 'Cocoon' will never catch 'Rambo.' And why 'Back to the Future' will blow right past 'Cocoon.' "

According to Mintz, the two most powerful groups in determining box-office receipts are males under age 25 and females 25 and over. "They make the decisions in general," he said. "Younger females tend to agree with the younger males and the older males tend to go along with the older females."

None of that sort of thinking went into the decision to make 'Cocoon,' however, in the view of its co-producer, 67-year-old David Brown.

"Richard Zanuck and I approved 'Cocoon' because it was contrary to the conventional wisdom and because it touched our hearts," Brown said by phone from his New York office. "We're not going to try to work this mine (of films that appeal especially to older audiences). Dick Zanuck and I make each picture as a separate enterprise with separate qualities. In these days of research-motivated decision making, the 'safest' movie is often the riskiest."

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