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How very special . . . not

If you were looking for a die-hard art-house moviegoer, you couldn’t find a more reliable patron than Michael Barker. On almost any Friday night, the co-head of Sony Pictures Classics is out seeing a smart, thought-provoking film, usually a picture made by one of the studio specialty film divisions that have supplied adult moviegoers, not to mention Oscar voters, with most of their favorite attractions in recent years.

But something has gone horribly wrong in the specialty film business. Movies are dying left and right, with even the modest successes doing half of the business they used to do. What’s worse, this isn’t just a two-month slump. This is a real art-house depression. You have to go back to the fall of 2006, when “The Queen” and “Babel” were released, to find a specialty-division drama that made as much as money as a forgettable piece of fluff like the Jessica Alba comedy “Good Luck Chuck.”

It would be unfair to blame the disaster on the movies themselves, which are no better or worse than before. The real problem is that there’s too much money pouring into Hollywood, much of it what the industry calls “dumb money,” money from equity funds, real estate tycoons and deep-pocketed investors eager to cash in on some of the razzle dazzle of the movie business. Hardly a week goes by when I don’t find myself at lunch with someone who’s just secured enough loot to make a slate of 20 movies from some hedge fund or equity financier.

When there’s that much easy money floating around, it’s inevitable that bad choices get made, especially because many hedge funds need to spend their money within a certain time frame, putting them in a position of asking the dumb-money question: “Whaddya got?”

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Everyone wants to make a good movie, but when the marketplace is jammed with new movies every weekend -- 14 of them opened in L.A. last Friday -- the bar for what moviegoers consider good is suddenly a lot higher, and it’s that much harder to cut through the clutter. That high bar won’t hurt a crowd-pleaser full of star power, like “American Gangster,” which opened strongly this weekend. But the highbrow specialty movies, especially the ones without big stars or strong entertainment value, are getting plastered.

As Picturehouse chief Bob Berney put it: “It’s scary out there. Mondays [after the weekend box-office results have arrived] are brutal -- nobody wants to even come into work.” What’s happened? After all, just two years ago the specialty audience was flocking to see such challenging fare as “Crash” and “Brokeback Mountain.” For one answer, let’s go back to Michael Barker and find out why, on a recent Friday night, he found himself at home -- gasp -- watching TV.

“I opened up the New York Times, and the best review in the paper was for ‘Friday Night Lights,’ so I told my wife, ‘Let’s stay home and watch it,’ ” he says. “There’s something especially compelling about TV right now. The reviews in the big-city papers have been a lot better for the new TV dramas than for the movies.” Barker isn’t alone. When I was at a recent dinner party populated with the kind of people who could handicap the Oscar race in their sleep, no one was talking about movies -- everyone was marveling over the final episode of “Mad Men.” In days past, it was HBO that had the spotlight shows for discerning adults. But now virtually every cable network has a cool, critically beloved show with good buzz, whether it’s AMC’s “Mad Men,” TNT’s “State of Grace,” Lifetime’s “Army Wives,” FX’s “Damages” or Sci Fi’s “Battlestar Galactica.”

“There’s definitely a creative shift going on,” says producer Bruce Cohen, who with his partner Dan Jinks has made the transition from daring filmmaking -- they produced “American Beauty” -- to fresh TV, in the form of “Pushing Daisies.” “There are a lot of series on TV right now that are breaking the mold. It’s absolutely raised the bar for anyone thinking about going out to see a movie on Friday night.”

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This burst of original programming has been accompanied by a growing popularity of serialized dramas on network TV, shows far more likely to have fans hooked on seeing every episode than the old police procedural shows. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to do the math. If a big chunk of educated, upscale consumers are caught up watching “The Closer,” that’s a big bunch of time subtracted from being out at the multiplex, especially with TiVo and video-on-demand making it easier than ever to watch TV when you want to.

All this time-shifting raises the bar for movies another notch. As Barker put it: “There are 16 movies opening every week, but you can’t TiVo any of them.” These new series not only have the kind of alternative vibe you get from indie movies, but they also seem more in sync with the mood of the country than the bleak dramas tanking in the theaters. At a time when many Americans are depressed about the horror of Iraq, brooding over the economy and worried about America’s place in the world, they seem less eager to embrace movies that offer more grim tidings.

It’s no coincidence that many of the movies that are under-performing, including “Into the Wild,” “In the Valley of Elah,” “Rendition,” “The Assassination of Jesse James . . . " and “Lust, Caution,” are long on running time but short on uplift.

“When we did psychographic research into what women 18 to 49 wanted, what we got back was that they’re looking for stories that offered hopefulness and relevance in their lives,” says Lifetime Network entertainment chief Susanne Daniels. “I haven’t seen all the fall movies, but judging from the marketing, those qualities seem in short supply. When you’re looking for something hopeful, well, that’s not ‘Gone Baby Gone.’ ”

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This is not to say that good TV is killing specialty movies, only to say that if something is ailing movies, you can no longer diagnose the problem by looking at movies alone. “The Kingdom,” a much-hyped action thriller aimed at young men, had a hugely disappointing debut in late September. Was the problem simply bad marketing? Or did a lot of the movie’s core audience stay home to play Halo 3, a wildly popular video game that hit stores three days before “The Kingdom” opened?

The specialty market used to be a nice little niche business. But today it’s just as much of a Big Event business as the summer blockbusters in the sense that there’s only room for three or four movies to break out each fall. If a film doesn’t get spectacular reviews, a growing segment of the adult audience will simply put it in their Netflix queue and watch it at home on their flat-screen TV.

WHAT we have now is a specialty business in dire need of reinvention, from the kind of movies that are made to when they’re released (even if that means some executive will have to break the news to some filmmaker that his movie isn’t Oscar worthy enough to merit being released at the height of award season). The one studio model that has consistently worked is Fox Searchlight’s, which has found a cozy niche with irreverent, indie comedies, notably “Sideways,” “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Little Miss Sunshine.” But the flooded marketplace is putting stress even on Fox’s model. The studio’s recent comedy “Waitress” made less money than any of its predecessors, unable to stay in theaters long enough to push its gross past $20 million.

You don’t need a business degree to know that every over-saturated market eventually has a shakeout. All the money pouring into movieland has created a Gold Rush-style environment in which too many films are being made without having a good reason to exist. Sooner or later, the laws of gravity will return. Hollywood has always been a Darwinian business, especially in the sense that whether you’re making a high-minded drama or a cheesy comedy, it behooves you to answer the question: Who’s the audience for this movie?

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It’s a question that hasn’t been asked enough lately. And until people come up with a good answer, the specialty

film business is going to be full of a lot of misery and heartache.

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The Big Picture appears Tuesdays in Calendar. Questions or criticism can be e-mailed to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.

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