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Adult-Oriented Films Aren't Dying

By Dustin Rowles | Industry | April 21, 2009 |

By Dustin Rowles | Industry | April 21, 2009 |

The big news this week in Hollywood is something that I touched upon in this weekend’s box-office report: The death of the adult-oriented film. But THR explained the reason behind the shift away from adult-oriented dramas better than I did: It’s the economy, of course. As the recession deepens, adults are steering clear of movie theaters, which is why some believe that State of Play underperformed, despite the presence of Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck.

It makes some sense, but for the fact that box-office grosses, overall, are on a healthy uptick over 2008, so far. One studio exec explained it like this, “Not as many adults are going to the movies because of the recession,” a highly placed studio exec lamented. “More and more, it’s the kids who come out and support the pictures over opening weekend and not as much the older adults.” It’s because movies are cheaper than a baby-sitter, and mommy and daddy need some backseat-loving time.

And perhaps that’s true. But I wonder how true that is. Could it be that the adult-oriented fare that the studios are putting out just doesn’t have a lot of appeal, even among more mature audiences? I dug State of Play, but Ben Affleck’s star power has been dim for years now, and Russell Crowe hasn’t exactly been cleaning up. Body of Lies was disappointing, and I’d daresay that Crowe’s image hasn’t been the same since A Good Year, though American Gangster did perform well. But then again, how many people feel compelled by the subject material in State of Play? A movie adapted from a BBC mini-series that’s partially about the death of the newspaper industry doesn’t exactly sound like a blockbuster, no matter who is starring in it. Likewise, the other big adult-oriented flop this year,Duplicity, starred Julia Roberts — who hasn’t had a hit in years — and Clive Owen, who has never been able to carry a movie on his own.

I think it’s too early to say the adult-oriented film is dying: Just look at four months ago, when The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and even Valkyrie performed extremely well at the box office. For good or bad, adults aren’t that much different from kids: They want gimmicks and explosions and spies and suspense and attractive stars doing nasty things to each other. Adults are less inclined to bother with the hassle of going to the movies, so it takes more than a BBC miniseries or a recycled spy comedy to bring them into the theaters. Brad Pitt and Matt Damon can still bring in adult audiences. So can Denzel, and The Taking of Pelham 123 will be a better gauge of the state of adult-oriented films, as will the performance of this weekend’s The Soloist, starring Robert Downey, Jr.

And for example of what has worked in adult dramas this year, one need look no further than Liam Neeson’s Taken. Here’s a movie with a familiar star, but not exactly a box-office monster. And yet Taken pulled in $142 million - it’s the third highest-grossing film of 2009. Why did it do so well?

“Adults are a harder audience to motivate, and the problem with some adult movies is compounded by their not being high-concept films that you can boil down to 30-second spots,” a top studio exec said. “With ‘Taken,’ it was, ‘You took my kid, motherfucker, and you’re going to pay.’ “

That’s probably the coolest thing a studio exec has ever said. That man must have poured Red Bull into his cereal this morning. And he’s right, too. The problem is the marketing. How many more adults would’ve seen State of Play if it could’ve been boiled down to this: “You killed my hot mistress, motherfucker, and I’m going to blow the fucking lid off your corporate conspiracy.” Or Duplicity: “You’re a greedy corporate motherfucker, and I’m going to screw you out of every cent you own.”

Hell, I love Robert Downey, Jr., but I’m not that excited about The Soloist. A journalist pulls a homeless musician off the street? That doesn’t sound appealing. But what about this: Iron Man pulls a crazy, homeless motherfucker off the street and makes him famous! Now that’s a movie I’d pay to see.

You want to attract an adult audience? Fit “motherfucker” into your movie’s description. Boom: $100 million.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.