It has become conventional wisdom in recent years to complain that Hollywood no longer makes movies for adults. Addicted to the rinse-and-repeat viewing habits of teenagers and comic book geeks, increasingly dependent on foreign box office, the studios have dumbed down and infantalized their business models, making movies that are easily digested, reward double and triple viewings, and come with their own sequel and spinoff possibilities pre-attached.
But a cursory glance at the release schedule this autumn — when most smart, sophisticated films come out, the better to leverage festivals and awards campaigns for free marketing — suggests that Hollywood hasn’t succumbed entirely to juvenilia. More than 40 movies aimed toward adults will open by the end of the year — more than half of those by one of the six major studios or their boutique subsidiaries.
Universal will release “Steve Jobs,” about the eponymous Apple founder, as well as the mountain-climbing adventure “Everest.” Sony will come out with “The Walk,” starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit doing his tightrope stunt at the World Trade Center in 1974, as well as “The Lady in the Van,” based on Alan Bennett’s play about a woman who took up residence in his driveway 40 years ago. Under its marquee and boutique banners, 20th Century Fox will release David O. Russell’s “Joy,” starring Jennifer Lawrence as Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano; the historical drama “The Revenant,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio; and festival favorites “Brooklyn” and “Youth.”
But by far the studio with the most adult appeal this season is Warner Bros., which will distribute “Black Mass,” starring Johnny Depp as Boston gang leader James “Whitey” Bulger; “Our Brand Is Crisis,” a comedy-drama based on a documentary about American political consultants working in South America; “In the Heart of the Sea,” about the storied 19th-century whaling ship Essex; and “The 33,” about the Chilean miners who were trapped for more than two months in 2010.
“The studio that gets the most kudos is Warner Brothers,” says film critic Bill Newcott, of AARP’s Movies for Grown-Ups. “As a studio, they seem to be on to something.”
What they’re onto is that filmgoers who are middle-aged and older — retirees, empty-nesters and parents with kids old enough to not need babysitting — are still a viable, even lucrative market. This year, older moviegoers made “Woman in Gold” and “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” hits, and they kept movies such as “Ex Machina” and “Love & Mercy” in theaters for encouragingly long runs.
But, if the movie business isn’t ignoring adults entirely, it still carefully hedges its bets. Most movies aimed at grown-ups — from big studios and little ones alike — are either based on true stories and real-life characters or are adapted from best-selling novels. In a way, history, current events and literary bestsellers serve the same purpose as the comic books and video games so many movies are based on these days: They assure nervous executives that there will be a built-in audience for what they’re selling, whether they bought the book version on Amazon.com or are at least aware of the story from hearing about it on the news.
“A lot of movie marketing tells you what the story is,” Newcott says. “And it costs a lot of money to tell people, ‘Here’s what it’s about.’ ” The awareness that adult audiences bring to the table, he says, makes it possible “to make the movie for $35 million because you don’t have to spend an extra $50 million saying, ‘Here’s what the movie’s about.’ . . . [This] audience [may not be] pre-sold, but they’re aware of things coming down the pike, and they have the shorthand to know what to expect from a film.”
If the good news is that big studios aren’t abandoning adult filmgoers entirely, the bad news is that the small companies that make that market their bread and butter seem to be in the same real life/adaptation rut: “Carol,” “Spotlight,” “Snowden,” “Trumbo,” “Room,” “The Danish Girl” and “I Saw the Light” are just a few indies coming out this fall that are based either on books or true stories.
Where are the mid-budget adult-oriented dramas or comedies based on one-off scripts and stories — the kind of movies associated with the golden ages of Paddy Chayevsky, Sidney Lumet and Alan Pakula and, later, Robert Towne, Nora Ephron and James L. Brooks? Sony did its best this summer with Cameron Crowe’s “Aloha” and the Meryl Streep starrer “Ricki and the Flash.” This fall, Universal will release the Tina Fey-Amy Poehler comedy “Sisters,” and Weinstein will come out with Quentin Tarantino’s latest genre spectacle, “The Hateful Eight.” Admittedly, each of those projects arrives with its own brand-name recognition. And, somewhere out there, Woody Allen, Nicole Holofcener, Gina Prince-Bythewood and the Andersons (Wes and Paul Thomas) are surely polishing up their next projects. Without auteurs and the producers who love them, the most endangered species in Hollywood would be originality itself.