By Rochelle Siemienowicz
Go to your local cinema on any given day, and more likely than not, the screens are dominated by recycled superheroes in suits, animated animals voiced by celebrities, and gross-out comedies for teenagers. Why are there less movies made for grown-ups these days? The answers are about budgets, audiences and money.
Rochelle Siemienowicz, editor at the Australian Film Institute, gives us the lowdown – and shares some good news about grown-up movies on the horizon in the new year.
‘We now green-light fewer movies that are just OK … You have to feel a movie is special enough to have a chance to get the teenager off the couch from playing ‘Call of Duty’ with his friends.’
Rob Moore, vice-chairman of Paramount Pictures, quoted in the New Yorker.
‘The studios say, “Well, no one else is coming to movies reliably these days except for young males, so we’ll make our movies for them.” And yet if you make movies simply for young males, nobody else is going to want to go. So Hollywood has become like Logan’s Run: You turn 30, and they kill you.’
Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad, quoted in GQ.
Hollywood wants your teenager, because your teenager – and their middle-aged equivalents (the kind of adults who keep comic book collections, play video games and read vampire romances) are the people who’ll turn up in droves to see a ‘special’ film on its very first weekend at the multiplex. Your teenager is the kind of ticket-buyer who goes to the movies more than twice a year, to see ‘event’ movies that are – more often than not – shown in 3D.
These are the films that make big money, and if such a film doesn’t make big money in its first weekend, it’s basically considered a flop, it will quickly lose screens, and heads will roll at the big six studios in Hollywood (Paramount, Warner Bros, Columbia, Walt Disney, Universal and 20th Century Fox).
To succeed in this tight time cycle, a ‘special’ movie needs to be sensational, in the true meaning of that word. It must deliver big explosions, thrilling action sequences, supernatural romance, spine-chilling scares, and gut-wrenching laughs. A film like this can cost $220 million (the budget for Marvel’s The Avengers) and cost half that again in promotion costs. Even with an advertising budget as mammoth as that, in order to cut through into mass consciousness, the title must come with massive ‘pre-awareness’ – from an existing comic book, board game, action figure, superhero, movie franchise or bestselling young adult novel. (A simple graph has been doing the rounds of the internet showing the decline of original stories, and the explosion of adaptations and sequels in Hollywood’s last decade.)
Thus the ‘special films’ – or the biggest box office hits of 2012 so far – are: Marvel’s The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hunger Games, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 and The Amazing Spider-man.
The next most attractive audience, after adolescents (and the adolescent at heart) is kids. They’re gold because they come in groups, with supervising adults, who all purchase tickets and buy up big at the candy bar. It follows then that just down the list of box-office blockbusters for 2012 are the animated films Brave (‘radical’ because it has a female lead), Madagascar 3 and Dr Seuss’s The Lorax. This is a typical year. The kids are alright. But what about the adults?
Which begs the question, how do you define a film for grown-ups? One possible rule of thumb is to look at the winners of the Academy Awards, which rarely favour animated films, frat comedies or sequels. Whatever you think about the Oscars – and they certainly have their critics – the voters within the Academy are generally adult males of a certain age, who have a memory and knowledge of popular cinema that stretches back to the golden age of Hollywood. (A time when films for grown-ups were the main game, and films for kids were just a sideline and blockbusters were films like Gone With the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia and The Godfather.)
Which is not to say Hollywood has traditionally made deep, meaningful or mature films. Or that the movie business hasn’t always been a mercenary game where the bottom line counts for almost everything; where great artists have always made their films in spite of the system rather than because of it. Hollywood has always been predominantly about money. It’s generally accepted, however, that the emphasis on big money made fast has increased dangerously in the last 15 years, with the rot arguably beginning in the 70s with films like Jaws and Star Wars setting the teen-loving precedent. These days, a film for grown-ups is, almost by definition, arthouse, speciality or niche.
The winners of the Oscar for Best Picture over the last five years have been The Artist, The King’s Speech, The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire and No Country for Old Men. Whatever you think about them, they’re not aimed at teens, and there’s not a comic book hero or bloodsucking Prince Charming among them. But these are the kinds of specialty films brought out each year for a brief golden period in the lead-up to the Awards season.
So yes, Hollywood still does make movies for adults – or rather the mini-majors and the arthouse divisions of the major studios tend to make them (Dreamworks, Lions Gate Entertainment, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Relativity Media and The Weinstein Company). But as a whole, the studios are making less movies than they used to, and less movies for adults. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, the number of films released by specialty divisions of major studios fell to just 37 movies in 2011, down from 82 in 2002 (that’s a drop of 55%).
Every critic worth their salt, including most recently the New Yorker’s David Denby, has had a say about the dire situation facing movie-goers who prefer adult fare. Denby has even written a book titled Do the Movies Have a Future? arguing that unless Hollywood returns to modestly budgeted and culturally relevant filmmaking, its days are numbered.
Ultimately, films for grown-ups are a big risk, financially. Such movies reflect aspects of real life and adult psychology, which is by its nature complex and complicated, and stories that reflect this are difficult to tie up in an easily marketable 90-minute package.
In the real world, grown-ups go to work. They rarely wear capes or gadget-laden suits made of iron, and they don’t singlehandedly save Gotham City in one cinematic swoop. Grown-ups go to war both physically and mentally, but their fights are rarely spectacular or easily understood. Legislative reform, career-building challenges and artistic blocks are hard to depict on the screen. Think of any number of stupid films about writers and painters maniacally throwing typewriters and canvases around.
In the real world adults struggle with chronic health problems, tedious parenting issues and imperfect romances that resolve in whimpering heartbreak or boredom rather than neat euphoric closure. There’s sex involved in adult life too – lots of it –and it’s not always pretty, romantic or even hilariously gross. And if a film depicts sex in any real detail, it’s going to earn an MA15+ or an R rating, which necessarily excludes a huge chunk of the movie-going audience. However, there’s always an exception to the rule and this year’s stunning outlier happens to be Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike, a serious but eye-poppingly saucy film about male stripping that cost a mere $7 million to make and has gone on to gross more than $160 million worldwide.
The moral challenges of real adult life are complex and intricate – and no matter how dark and troubled you write the character of Batman or James Bond, the nature of the genre requires a certain amount of black and white; good versus evil, with the outcome assured in a favourable manner. In the real world, people are mostly a mess of grey, which is actually the stuff of great novels and, thankfully, the stuff of great long-form television drama, the kinds of HBO drama series that we adults are eating up like addicts getting our fix of sophisticated candy.
But such complexity is hard for a kid to understand, and even harder for a movie marketing department to sell to mass English-speaking audiences (let alone international markets). And as the US domestic box office has been falling in recent years, with 2011 hitting a 15-year low, Hollywood is increasingly relying on international sales to burgeoning markets like China and Russia. No prizes for guessing which kind of stories travel best. And which kind of stories lend themselves most to merchandise spin-offs and Happy Meal toys.
Hollywood does make movies for grownups, but such films are not the main game anymore – and really, can we complain? Hollywood is in the business of making movies for people who pay to go to the movies. And let’s face it, most grown-ups we know prefer to stay home and watch illegally downloaded or borrowed box sets of Breaking Bad, Mad Men and Game of Thrones. (Incidentally, Australians are the worst in the world at illegally downloading Game of Thrones!). There are questions about whether the economic model exists to sustain such wonderful television if nobody is willing to buy it, but right now adults are actually incredibly well served for screen stories –it’s just that they’re being made for the small screen, not the big one.
You still want great movies on the big screen? Be thankful it’s not just Hollywood that makes movies. According to Screen Australia, in 2012, approximately 20 per cent of Australian box office revenue came from films that weren’t from the United States. Put another way, it’s sobering. About 80 per cent of Australian box office revenue did come from American films, and predominantly ‘Hollywood’ ones. And in case you’re wondering, Australian films made up just 4.8 per cent – and this is considered a fairly ‘good’ year, because of successful local films like The Sapphires.
If you live in a big city, you’ve probably got access to a greater diversity and variety of cinema than Australians have had at any other time in their history. Things could be better, but they could also be a lot worse. To prevent that, support your local arthouse cinema, and see good movies in their first weeks of release, especially if they’re Australian – it helps them to survive and convinces financiers to make more of them. If you love cinema on the big screen, make it a priority. Book a babysitter, go out into the world, and remember that somebody has to pay for that top-notch drama you’re loving – whether it’s on the big screen or the small one.
Rochelle Siemienowicz is editor at the Australian Film Institute | Australian Academy of Cinema & Television Arts. She tweets at @AFIeditor.
In the months ahead over the Australian summer (in the lead-up to the Awards season in early 2013), we adults have much to look forward to at the cinema – even in the crass popcorn stink of the multiplex. While The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey will dominate worldwide screens from Boxing Day, there are going to be other options for those uninterested in wizards and dragons. The following films may or may not be great cinema, but they’re certainly aimed at a grown-up audience.Les Miserables (26 Dec)
Directed by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech), this musical tragedy adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel stars Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and Russell Crowe.
Quartet (26 Dec)
Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut set amongst operatic retirees, stars Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly and Pauline Collins. Written by Ronald Harwood, the Oscar winning writer of The Pianist and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
Life of Pi (1 Jan)
Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s Booker-winning novel.
Hitchcock (10 Jan)
A drama about the legendary filmmaker’s defining career moments making Psycho, starring Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (17 Jan)
Woody Allen’s annual comic foray into the foibles of unfulfilled couples, starring Josh Brolin, Naomi Watts and Antonio Banderas.
This is Forty (17 Jan)
Judd Apatow revisits Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), the bickering married couple from Knocked Up, as they grapple with a middle age rut.
Silver Linings Playbook (31 Jan)
David O.’Russell’s adult drama about a young man (Bradley Cooper) recovering from a nervous breakdown after a marriage collapse. Stars Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver.
Zero Dark Thirty (31 Jan)
Kathryn Bigelow’s action thriller about the decade-long hunt and eventual assassination of Osama Bin Laden. Stars Jessica Chastain and Australian actors Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton and Nash Edgerton.
Lincoln (7 Feb)
A political biopic directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day-Lewis (as Abraham Lincoln), Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones.
Cloud Atlas (21 Feb)
Lana and Larry Wachowski’s ambitious time and space travelling adaptation of David Mitchell’s novel. Directed in collaboration with Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), and starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving and Jim Sturgess.
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