Something's Out of Line for Hollywood and Grown-Ups

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 23, 2009

If 2009 is remembered for anything in American cinema, it might be as the year grown-ups and Hollywood finally agreed to call it quits.

This is the year when such slick, star-driven, adult-oriented movies as "State of Play," "Duplicity," "The International" and "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3" underperformed at the box office. And when talking-toy movies like "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" and "G.I. Joe" raked in millions.

Suddenly, movies for grown-ups are in the cross hairs. "I'm caught up all in it," Spike Lee said recently with a rueful laugh, noting that the sequel to his 2006 thriller "Inside Man" is hanging in the balance. "I'm waiting on Universal," he said.

As it happens, Universal is the studio that has come to symbolize the current plight of movies for adults, having released both "Duplicity" and "State of Play," as well as "The Soloist" and "Funny People," considered box-office disappointments. Last week, Universal Co-chairman Marc Shmuger told the Los Angeles Times that 2009 "has certainly been a humbling year. First, there's a real need to be making movies for less money. Second, there's a real premium on sharper, more marketable concepts. Audiences are clearly seeking escape from their lives."

Translation: Hello, "Paul Blart." Sayonara, "Frost/Nixon."

The trend has been under way for some time now: With movies becoming more expensive to make and market, Hollywood has increasingly gone for sure bets. Studios want movies -- preferably based on an already successful book or video game, preferably featuring non-stars who need not be paid much -- that are guaranteed to bring in audiences not just once but twice or three times. Franchises like "Lord of the Rings," "Harry Potter" and "Twilight," with their sequels, prequels and just plain 'quels, fit that bill nicely.

Alternatively, small, modestly budgeted films that become sleeper hits -- the "Little Miss Sunshines" and "Junos" of the world -- also are prospering, simply because even with smaller-than-"Transformers"-size audiences, it's easier for them to make their budgets back. (It looks like this year's winner in the category will be the winsome romantic dramedy "[500] Days of Summer.")

The result is that only two types of movies -- big-budget blockbusters or poverty-row strivers -- seem to be making profits these days. The middle range of high-end, relatively sophisticated movies made with glossy production values and well-paid stars might do well with critics and some filmgoers but, between star salaries and the high costs of marketing, fail to earn their keep. And many observers worry that this will influence Hollywood's decisions about which projects to greenlight.

Note: These aren't movies described as "quirky" in their newspaper ads. Nor are they "gritty," "edgy," "offbeat" or "groundbreaking." These are movies that are simply smart, well-made and directed at filmgoers with discerning but not necessarily adventurous tastes. The year 2006 provides a useful core sample: That was when such movies as "The Devil Wears Prada," "The Departed" and "The Pursuit of Happyness" made the Top 20 list of box-office earners, and Lee's "Inside Man" came in close behind.

Part of the problem is that, with services like Netflix and video on demand making it easier for adults to avoid the parking headaches, high concession prices and annoying ads of the modern-day multiplex, more and more grown-ups are looking at the Friday paper and saying, "Why bother?"

One distributor that has capitalized on this trend is IFC, which this year released Steven Soderbergh's "Che" and the foreign films "Gomorrah" and "A Christmas Tale" in theaters and on its cable channel simultaneously. On Wednesday, it will release "Passing Strange: The Movie," Lee's documentary version of the Broadway show by performance artist Stew, the same way (it's also opening at the IFC Theater in New York), on a new pay-per-view channel, Sundance Selects.

IFC initially saw the simultaneous release of films in theaters and video on demand (known colloquially as "day-and-date") as ideal for small independent films, says IFC Films President Jonathan Sehring, who notes that "Che" and "Gomorrah" enjoyed roughly equivalent audiences in both venues. But he foresees a time when more mainstream movies are released the same way. "It's a way for films that either have bigger budgets or are really smart adult-oriented films to reach that audience," he says, "when megaplexes are programming [blockbusters] and studios are having a tough time doing anything else."

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