For many years, the fall has been the time when serious adult dramas
flood theaters. This is to position the films to capitalize on year-end awards
buzz, as well as the larger amount of free time older audiences presumably have
with the kids back in school.
This usually works well enough -- but just for two or three movies that break out of the pack to gross close to $100 million.
Last year, though, the scheme worked a lot better than it has for decades. Eight autumn releases uncompromisingly aimed at adult audiences -- "Lincoln," "Django Unchained," "Les Miserables," "Argo," "Silver Linings Playbook," "Life of Pi," "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Flight" -- grossed at least $90 million each by the time their North American runs ended.
"Lincoln" did twice that. And if you toss in the $304 million-grossing "Skyfall," which many considered the most mature James Bond movie since the 1960s, that makes nine.
"These films from last fall -- just good stories with good acting -- if people are starting to go to them again, I guarantee you there will be another batch of good movies for adults," said actor and Oscar-winning screenwriter Billy Bob Thornton, who appears in two of this fall's grown-up movies, the JFK-assassination drama "Parkland" and his own "Jayne Mansfield's Car."
He's right. Dozens of serious films are opening through December. As usual, the majority of them will be released by independent distributors such as The Weinstein Co. or the big studios' smaller specialty divisions.
But the six major studios, most of which scored big with a drama last fall, appear to be doubling down this season, going for at least two instead of their usual single grown-up release. Perhaps the fact that Warner Bros.' "Argo" was the first best picture Academy Award-winner from one of them in half-a-dozen years also influenced the rush to quality.
The results of just-completed summer 2013 make this look like a good idea, too. Dumb, loud and expensive action spectaculars -- long the majors' main focus -- began running out of steam by midsummer. Meanwhile, "The Great Gatsby," an F. Scott Fitzgerald adaptation of all things, made nearly $149 million during the moron-movie months. And "Lee Daniels' The Butler," a cinematic history lesson if there ever was one, topped the box-office charts for the last three weeks of summer.
Showbiz observers predict a lot of serious coin will be made by the rest of the year's dramas.
"I think it's highly likely," Boxoffice.com's chief analyst Phil Contrino says. "There are a lot of films that are opening between September and December that look like they have a lot of promise."
Contrino is especially high on "Gravity," an space survival story that eschews aliens and other fantasy elements to focus on two astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) whose orbiting capsule gets demolished.
He also likes the chances of "Silver Linings" director David O. Russell's 1970s political corruption piece "American Hustle"; "Saving Mr. Banks," in which Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) tries to convince author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to let him turn her Mary Poppins book into a movie; Martin Scorsese's high finance freak show "The Wolf of Wall Street" starring Leonardo DiCaprio; and the Clooney-directed, World War II art rescue mission "The Monuments Men" featuring
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