News Column

Movies for Grown-Ups Back in Style this Fall

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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 an all-star cast.

All of which, by the way, are major studio releases. So are the likes of Spike Jonze's "Her," Alexander Payne's "Nebraska" and Bill Condon's "The Fifth Estate" -- arty or politically charged works that big corporate entertainment entities would not have touched a few years ago.

Potential breakouts being released by indies or the studios' dependent arms include the Naomi Watts-starring "Diana" biopic; "12 Years a Slave," which is knocking 'em dead at the fall film festivals; the Coen brothers' acclaimed, folk music tragicomedy "Inside Llewyn Davis"; and "August: Osage County," with Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep acting up a storm.

Other possibilities abound, too.

"Between last fall and this fall, we're seeing a renaissance in the world of the adult drama," Hollywood.com's box office division President Paul Dergarabedian observed. "From 'Gravity' to 'Runner Runner' to 'Parkland' to 'The Counselor' to 'Wolf of Wall Street,' a lot of movies look really interesting. If these films fulfill the promise of their themes and the stars and directors that are associated with them, it's going to be a really spectacular fall.

"It was just three or four years ago when they said that the adult drama was dead," Dergarabedian continued. "There were a bunch of examples -- George Clooney and Julia Roberts movies that failed. But last fall it kind of made a comeback and this fall, I think it's going to really capitalize on that."

Several factors may be contributing to the rising popularity of such films.

"One thing which may be drawing a more mature audience is the luxury theaters trend," noted Agata Kaczanowska, a senior industry analyst for IBISWorld, who tracks developments in movie production and exhibition. "Theaters are investing in better seating, instituting alcoholic beverage service and serving dinners to audiences. That's relatively expensive, but it's actually increasing the box office from mature audiences; they're more likely to be able to afford it."

And we all know that the massive Baby Boom generation is reaching retirement age, with all that extra leisure time to go to movies. Make more movies for that growing market, and attendance can snowball.

"If there are more (mature) titles, there is definitely more opportunity for audiences to pick this genre over a different one," Kaczanowska said. "It would also mean that more money is being invested in them and marketing them and really getting them in front of audiences. When you have that combination of studios spending more on this particular genre and a maturing audience, it's going to boost the entire category."

Another plus: realistic grown-up movies are generally cheaper to produce than the elaborate fantasies younger audiences evidently grew weary with this summer.

"I think audiences are figuring it out again," Dergarabedian said. "Audiences got caught up in just the summer movie mentality year-round, and only wanted to see superhero movies and big-budget extravaganzas. But then they got kind of burnt-out on that and went, 'Wow, 'Argo''s a really good movie.' "

No matter how successful some adult dramas may become, though, none are likely to make the kind of high-end, blockbuster money that keep the major studios in business.

Still, at the moment, it ain't a bad business to be in.

"Y'know, less risk, less reward," Contrino acknowledged. "They're not going make a billion dollars off of 'Gravity,' but they're also not spending as much. So if any of these movies bomb, their losses aren't so steep. It's a give-and-take; you have to pick your times when to hold back a little bit and manage a tidy profit without having to spend an arm and a leg."

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(c)2013 the Daily News (Los Angeles)

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