Rating High on Hollywood's List: Immature Audiences

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."

Would Lee consider the day-and-date strategy for, say, "Inside Man 2"? "Nope!" he says, without hesitation. "I've had my share of firsts already, so let somebody else take some bullets." He adds, however, that "it's gonna happen. I think we're getting [to the point where] the same day you see a movie in the theater, you can see it on video on demand or download the DVD to your home or computer or your telephone.

"Everybody and their mama has a 52-inch screen in their house," Lee says. "It's not necessarily a luxury item anymore. It's like having a toaster. And they have sound systems and Blu-ray machines. So in actuality, what people are viewing in their living rooms might be better than what they might see in these run-down theaters. As a filmmaker, I prefer for people to see my films in the theater. But if it's a choice between not seeing them at all, I'll take seeing them at home."

Meanwhile, observers agree that, if adult-oriented mainstream dramas and comedies are to survive, Hollywood must rethink some of its most cherished assumptions. Like astronomical star salaries. "There's something going on with these movie stars now," says industry analyst and Indiewire blogger Anne Thompson. "They don't work. Part of the problem is that they've been overpaid for a long time. But whatever the magic formula was where the studios thought they could pay them $20 million and get it back, it isn't working."

Consider: Russell Crowe couldn't get tushies in seats for "State of Play" or "Body of Lies," the latter of which featured the added catnip of Leonardo DiCaprio. Julia Roberts didn't coax oldsters off their couches to see "Duplicity." Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp and Tom Hanks didn't tip the scales for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "Public Enemies" or "Angels and Demons." (And most of these movies had the benefit of strong to favorably mixed reviews.)

Producer Laura Bickford ("Traffic," "Che," "Duplicity") agrees with Thompson that more stars are going to have to emulate George Clooney, who has often taken a salary cut to make good movies. He starred in "Michael Clayton" for a price far below his customary $15 million, making it possible for the 2007 thriller to make a profit with a $93 million box-office take. "Movies have to be made for less," Bickford says, "and the interests of financiers and talent have to get more aligned, where everyone gets less up front and shares the upside."

Another Hollywood habit coming under scrutiny is the pathological focus on the Oscars. Increasingly, studios have saved their classy productions for the end of the year, spending tens of millions of dollars on Oscar campaigns that boost awareness and prestige -- and, the studios hope, ticket sales. The strategy flopped this year, Thompson says. "Even with films that got good reviews," she says, "like 'Frost/Nixon,' 'The Reader' and 'Milk,' their Oscar campaigns cost more than the money they yielded."

Hollywood Reporter writer Carl DiOrio, who in April wrote about the struggles of adult-oriented dramas, says it all comes down to one thing: marketing. "It's less about whether there will be actual motion pictures and more about whether they're concepts that are easily marketed," he says. "You need to let the viewer understand what their moviegoing experience is going to be like in a very simple TV message, and that's not easily done unless you have something that can be boiled down to a [one-sentence synopsis]. And the [typical] modestly budgeted adult-oriented drama of the character-driven variety doesn't really lend itself to a convenient marketing hook."

(Last winter's "Taken" and the current "Julie & Julia," both adult-aimed movies that have done well, exemplify DiOrio's point. One is a fast-moving action thriller about a retired CIA agent who must rescue his abducted daughter. The other features a beloved actress playing an equally beloved American icon, in a story set in romantic postwar France and full of delicious shots of food and cooking. What's not to like?)

Bickford echoes DiOrio's observation. "As long as you can figure out a way to market these movies without spending your entire profit, they'll be made," she says.

"The last 18 months have been just devastating," she continues. "But in terms of audiences for these movies, they're there. Look at how many people want to see Meryl Streep play Julia Child."

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