Hollywood's Got An Issue With Aging.

June 1, 2021

Hollywood's Got An Issue With Aging.

May 29, 2023

Over the last five years, I've been on an intergenerational journey with my now 80-year-old mom for our documentary, DUTY FREE. To say our time together has been life-changing would be cutting the experience short. I've been able to ask my mom every question I've ever wanted to ask, I've cried with her, laughed with her, learned from her, and fought for her.

Through the film, we've been able to stoke national conversations around the importance of intergenerational care while shining a spotlight on a cultural issue that too few want to see: ageism.

My mom was fired from her hotel job at age 75. The organization called it a restructuring (of one person). After having worked at the hotel for over a decade, and having lived within the building for 40 years, the organization gave her a severance of two weeks pay as well as a year to move out. I had never experienced a parting so cruel...that is until we heard from hundreds of others whose experiences mirrored my mom's.

When we released an early trailer for the film in 2017, it racked up 38 million views on Facebook. People from around the world messaged us with stories of being fired, or dismissed, left vulnerable or completely invisible due to their age. I had never realized how prevalent ageism was because I had the "privilege" of youth in a country that often defines one's value by his/her age. Their comments made my stomach turn, and made me question why, as a culture, we self-harm by taking actions or making jokes about older folks that will inevitably come back to hurt us. After all, we'll all get old.

Pitching DUTY FREE to agents, talent executives, distributors and other gatekeepers proved a struggle. Even with our early trailer success, and a sizable social media following, Hollywood folks were hesitant to take on this project. "It's a small story," a few executives told me. "Does the ageism stuff really matter?," suggested another. "Is there even an audience for this?," one asked. We had data to prove that, yes, we had a massive audience that was intergenerational, that the story was universal, and that the ageism "stuff" hit home for so many. The fact is DUTY FREE doesn't center its gaze on a 20-something, but rather on a 75-year old everywoman. And Hollywood doesn't like to play in the elder space, despite there being a broad audience for those narratives.

Without positive and authentic portrayals of older folks in the shows and films we are served across streaming sites, Hollywood is a player in the ageist culture we're building in this country. And it's everyone's loss.

With the help of Chip Conley and others across the world, we were able to world premiere DUTY FREE at the prestigious DOCNYC festival in 2020. It was immediately a social media hit at the festival, and a top-grossing film out of over 100 film selections. We released the film in theaters over Mother's Day, secured an impossible slot at the IFC Center in New York and screened at 30 other theaters across the country. AARP showed the film privately to its members, and it was their most-watched private screening of 2021, and the second most-watched ever. We had over 10,000 paid views of the film in our opening week, and coverage on CBS Sunday Morning, MSNBC, Tamron Hall's talk show, and more. The film was a hit.

All of that to say that our ageist notions are holding us back...that there are so many other rich stories of older folks that aren't making it through to the broader public. So many lost opportunities for young people (and older folks alike) to see the brightness, the malleability, the curiosity, the EQ, and the power of our older generations, and so much intergenerational community lost because of the lack of narrative space older folks are given.

Over the last five years, I've learned a lot about narratives and the need for change across the entertainment industry. But I've learned even more about my mom.

Above all, through our adventures together, I've been given the gift of seeing her not just as a mom, but as a human being. As a person, like me, who is complicated and textured, with a life that stretches beyond the 30 years we've known each other. I've gained a deep and profound respect for her as a human, one that will live within me forever.

I hope this film and this movement pushes the world over to look at older folks, instead of looking away. Because, damn, there's so much humanity to see.

Sian-Pierre Regis is the director and producer of Duty Free, currently in theaters and streaming-at-home. Previously, he was an on-camera journalist for outlets including CNN and MTV.

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