Hollywood Rediscovers Grown-Ups

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Times Staff Writer

There’s a hot new special effect headed for the multiplexes this season: the summer movie that appeals to grown-ups.

Hollywood’s usual summer lineup of over-the-top car chases, fiery explosions and gross-out comedies this year also will feature adult thrillers, a social satire, a musical portrait of the composer Cole Porter and even a couple of Oscar hopefuls.

Hollywood isn’t abandoning its beloved 18- to 24-year-olds, who account for the repeat business that keeps the industry afloat. But it is rolling the dice, releasing substantive fare such as Jonathan Demme’s “The Manchurian Candidate” and Steven Spielberg’s “The Terminal” into a high-stakes summer -- a season when, as the saying goes, “every day’s a Saturday” because the kids are not in school.


“All you hear at cocktail parties is that there’s nothing to go and see,” said ThinkFilm distribution chief Mark Urman. “Anyone saying that this summer, however, is just plain lazy. If it’s not the ‘revenge of the grown-ups,’ it’s certainly ‘the revenge of talent.’ Hollywood is starting to acknowledge the salability of quality.”

Among the offerings from the major studios: a remake of “The Stepford Wives,” the Cole Porter portrait “De-Lovely,” the latest Robert Ludlum adaptation, “The Bourne Supremacy” and Michael Mann’s “Collateral,” in which a cabdriver picks up a passenger (Tom Cruise) who turns out to be an assassin. “The Manchurian Candidate,” a modern-day take on John Frankenheimer’s 1962 Cold War classic, is the kind of film traditionally released in the fall. But on July 30, the Paramount Pictures release will go head-to-head with “The Village,” another chilling, otherworldly offering from M. Night Shyamalan (“The Sixth Sense”).

Even the big popcorn movies this summer are carrying some extra heft, with heavy-duty directors such as Alfonso Cuaron at the helm of “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” and Sam Raimi on “Spider-Man 2.”

In a time of flat ticket sales, adults over 40 increasingly are viewed as an “underserved” audience -- if not of the scope of the evangelical Christian segment that showed up for Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” still likely to turn out when the material is there. “Something’s Gotta Give,” a romantic comedy whose protagonists have a combined age of 125, has taken in a hefty $125 million domestically, with much of the audience composed of baby boomers.

According to the Motion Picture Assn. of America, the number of moviegoers ages 50 to 59 rose 20% between July 2002 and last July, making them the fastest-growing segment in the market. Even among “frequent moviegoers,” who head for theaters at least once a month, the over-40s are nearly one-third of the pie (compared with 42% for the 12-to-24 bracket.) Still, they apparently were bypassed by the studios last summer when the “majors” served up only “Matchstick Men,” the Oscar-nominated “Seabiscuit” and “The Italian Job,” a lightweight heist film that grossed $100 million, in part, some believe, because of the lack of adult alternatives.

Though last summer’s “Finding Nemo” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” scored big with adults -- and everyone else -- movies such as “The Hulk,” “2 Fast 2 Furious” and “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” were perceived as youth-oriented and stayed off grown-ups’ must-see lists.


“Part of the problem last year was that adults weren’t attracted to the summer ‘tent-pole’ movies” -- big films on the studio schedule, said Jeff Blake, vice chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment. “With ‘Spider-Man,’ 50% of our audience was over 25, and we’re aiming for that again. Raimi said he set out to make a better movie -- not a bigger or louder one.”

To woo the older audience, Jerry Pokorski, executive vice president and head film buyer for Pacific Theatres and the ArcLight Cinemas, is programming a slate of 60% mainstream movies and 40% “independent” films at the ArcLight and the Grove. And, starting this week, people will be able to watch movies, drink in hand, at the Grove’s “over-21 auditorium” -- the first in the state licensed to serve hard liquor. No kids allowed.

“In the summer, it always seemed [the over-40s] were taking a vacation -- a huge disservice to the audience and a missed opportunity for the business,” Pokorski said. “This is probably the first year we can say we’ve hit the adult audience as well.”

The change can’t come fast enough for Gene Nelson, 65, and his wife, Joanne Rocklin, 58, who live near Hancock Park. Waiting to see “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” at the Grove last Sunday, they bemoaned the lack of story and character on the screen.

“I guess I’m a product of my age,” Nelson, a Realtor, said, surveying the box office choices. “But ‘Kill Bill’ doesn’t speak to me, and I don’t even know what ‘Envy’ is. I’m not the person they’re making movies for -- and for a justifiable reason. I don’t go to the same movie four times -- unlike the younger crowd.”

The two of them used to be avid moviegoers, observed Rocklin, a children’s book author. But they’re much pickier these days. “We rarely head for the big chains anymore. But there are always good little films in the art houses, a ‘Station Agent’ or a ‘Spellbound,’ so I really don’t feel deprived.”


Independent film companies, in fact, have always regarded summer as prime time for adult counterprogramming. “Whale Rider,” “American Splendor” and documentaries such as “Winged Migration” helped fill the void in 2003. And there is a variety of star-studded, high-profile entries this year, including “The Door in the Floor,” an adaptation of a John Irving novel that stars Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger, and “The Clearing,” a thriller with Robert Redford, Helen Mirren and Willem Dafoe. A healthy crop of documentaries also is part of the mix, including “Festival Express,” featuring footage of the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin that should strike a chord with baby boomers.

“The mid-20th century until now has been ours,” said Jack Foley, 53, president of distribution for Focus Features. “And Hollywood is finally getting it.”

Boomers are now called “zoomers,” said Russell Schwartz, president of domestic marketing for New Line Cinema. Now that their children are grown, they have more time and mobility. The influx of adult-oriented material could help retrieve disaffected moviegoers, expanding the marketplace, he said.

Terry Press, head of marketing for DreamWorks SKG, had no qualms about thrusting “The Terminal” and “Collateral” into the summer box office melee. Academy Award contenders such as “Saving Private Ryan” and winners like “Gladiator” were hot-weather releases, she said, so it’s far from virgin territory. Besides, she said, last year’s best picture nomination for “Seabiscuit” proved that the academy’s memory isn’t that short -- and, given the curtailed Oscar season, it’s even wiser to avoid the year-end logjam and spread your movies out.

“Older people have more disposable income than the audience Hollywood chases weekend after weekend,” Press said. “Word of mouth carries longer and farther because there’s not another adult-oriented movie competing with your movie the next weekend. The industry needs to cultivate a generation with a tradition of theatergoing -- people who enjoy going out to the movies rather than downloading and file-sharing them.”

Donna Bernard, the 57-year-old owner of a women’s clothing store, isn’t the first person you’d imagine lining up for the ultra-violent “Kill Bill Vol. 2” -- or for youth-oriented summer movies, for that matter. Still, she’s drawn to movies at both ends of the spectrum.


“I enjoy the mix, from independent movies such as ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ to ‘Finding Nemo,’ ” she says. “I’ll be in line for ‘Shrek’ the day it opens ... and not just because of my grandchildren. I don’t care what audience a movie is aimed at, as long as it’s entertaining and smart.”

The older demographic has a significant downside, however: It lacks a sense of urgency. More responsive to reviews, it’s less likely to head to a movie on the crucial opening weekends that can make or break a film. The window for success is increasingly small, and the patience of exhibitors wears thin. Few adult movies open at No. 1 -- and if the showing isn’t sufficiently strong, a film is likely to be bumped off by the next “event movie” or independent offering.

“Releasing upscale movies like ‘Manchurian Candidate’ and ‘Bourne Supremacy’ in the summer” takes guts, said Rick Sands, chief operating officer of Miramax Films. “If you misfire, there’s no net. But if you succeed, the payoff is there. The box office is much bigger and you can release the DVD at Christmas, a tremendous buying period. Everyone, including the majors, is taking the gamble.”

Still, not all adult material will work in the summer, ThinkFilm’s Urman pointed out. “You need movies that can compete with Hollywood and, at the same time, be an antidote to it. People want a cocktail that goes down easily rather than a stiff drink -- a combination of prestige and pizazz. By the Fourth of July, they’re craving something with a line of dialogue, where the effects are emotional, not digital.”

Another key to success is finding the right release date in an overcrowded market. Rob Friedman, vice chairman of the motion picture group at Paramount Pictures, picked early June for “Stepford Wives,” when it goes up against the kid-friendly “Garfield” and “The Chronicles of Riddick,” aimed primarily at teenage boys.

There’s a “cultural change” afoot, Sony’s Blake observed.

“For a long time, it was very scary to open an adult film in the summer,” he said. “But now, big movies are being released all year. We sent out Adam Sandler’s ’50 First Dates,’ a traditional summer film, on Valentine’s Day, and I might schedule ‘The Da Vinci Code’ for summer 2006. It’s good for consumers -- and for the industry. It doesn’t make sense that a season can be so good for one kind of entertainment and a wasteland for others.”