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The face of change

He makes $20 million a movie, won the best actor Oscar for “Gladiator” and enjoys his pick of Hollywood’s choicest roles. But there’s one thing that Russell Crowe can’t do right now: sell movie tickets.

The actor’s conspiracy thriller “State of Play” lands in theaters Friday and all indications suggest it will perform as poorly as (and possibly worse than) Crowe’s previous film: last October’s box-office bust “Body of Lies,” which opened to $12.9 million and topped out at $39.4 million. Audience-tracking surveys show that “State of Play,” which costars Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams, will be trounced this weekend by Zac Efron’s “17 Again” and may even finish behind the low-budget action film “Crank: High Voltage.”

Universal Pictures, the film’s producer and distributor, is hopeful “State of Play,” adapted from an acclaimed 2003 British miniseries of the same name, could generate opening weekend ticket sales in excess of $10 million, with a potentially higher gross if the film’s reviews, so far mostly positive, continue to run favorably. But $10-million openings are not why studios pay actors $20-million salaries, which is what Crowe received for “State of Play.”

What’s more, given the film’s more than $60-million budget, “State of Play” will struggle to turn a profit -- its audience-tracking surveys place the film on the same box-office track as such recent duds as “The International,” “The Pink Panther 2" and “Defiance.”

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While some of “State of Play’s” likely lackluster performance will be blamed on Crowe, the 45-year-old Australian -- who is overweight and disheveled in the film’s lead role as an investigative newspaper reporter -- is hardly the sole issue. Equally problematic is “State of Play’s” genre: the highbrow adult drama, which is quickly becoming a big-studio relic.

Fans of sophisticated storytelling complain that hardly anyone makes smart dramas anymore, but the problem rests with the audience itself: It isn’t supporting them.

Universal knows this all too well. Despite positive notices and Julia Roberts in a lead role, the studio’s “Duplicity” has grossed only $37.3 million in the United States after opening March 20, and Universal’s “Frost/Nixon” -- despite five Academy Award nominations, including best picture -- didn’t even get to $19 million in domestic theaters.

Universal, like its peer studios, can hardly be blamed, then, for scrapping many of its planned dramas in favor of easier-to-market video game adaptations (“Bioshock”), toy titles (“Stretch Armstrong”) and sequels (“Little Fockers,” a fourth “Bourne” movie).

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“You are going to find every studio saying, ‘I can’t do it, I can’t do it,’ ” Donna Langley, Universal’s production chief, says of the near-term prospects for dramas. “It will be awhile until there are a lot of really smart dramas.”

In the last few months, the General Electric-owned studio has put the brakes on some of its most acclaimed dramatic projects, including writer-director Gary Ross’ “The Free State of Jones,” Spike Lee’s “L.A. Riots,” an adaptation of the Claire Messud novel “The Emperor’s Children” and the AIDS drama “The Dallas Buyer’s Club.”

For years, Universal has been a reliable maker of smart, adult-oriented movies, and “State of Play” was a natural fit for the studio’s programming philosophy.

“I was really attracted to the backdrop, the world, the environment,” Langley says. “I love the collision of journalism, politics and big business.”

The hope was a modern-day “Absence of Malice” crossed with “All the President’s Men” and “Three Days of the Condor.” “It’s the kind of movie,” Langley says almost wistfully, “that 10 years ago every studio was looking for.”

Director Kevin Macdonald’s (“The Last King of Scotland”) adaptation of the British production maintains the miniseries’ core conspiracy ideas, with several new (and American) twists.

Crowe plays Cal McAffrey, a journalist at a Washington, D.C., newspaper. McAdams costars as one of the paper’s political bloggers, and the two reporters unearth a complicated plot that involves murder, extramarital affairs, rising-star congressman Stephen Collins (Affleck) and a nefarious military contractor.

It wasn’t a particularly easy movie to produce. The screenplay went through numerous revisions by four screenwriters, including some uncredited rewrites by “Minority Report’s” Scott Frank, who crafted a reshoot aimed at clarifying McAffrey’s relationship with Collins’ wife, Anne (Robin Wright Penn).

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Most important, “State of Play” wasn’t always going to star Crowe. Brad Pitt was originally cast in the lead role, but the actor told Universal he wasn’t happy with the script.

The studio was ready to proceed anyway and hired Crowe as a last-minute replacement. Director Macdonald says he was surprised at the actor’s unkempt, chubby appearance -- “It wasn’t exactly what myself and the studio imagined,” he said in a recent interview -- but the look did fit the part; newsrooms are often filled with out-of-shape characters drawn more to Fritos than free weights.

(Crowe says he was working off the weight he gained for “Body of Lies,” which wrapped a few weeks before “State of Play” started.)

But is that the Crowe moviegoers want to see? George Clooney packed on the pounds for “Syriana” and won the supporting actor Oscar. Robert De Niro did the same for “Raging Bull,” winning the best actor statuette.

Rival marketing executives note that in some of Crowe’s most successful dramas -- “Gladiator,” “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” “3:10 to Yuma” among them -- the actor looked more buff than beefy, a formidable man of action.

In “State of Play,” on the other hand, Crowe looks and behaves more like one of us -- not a movie star. In one key scene shown in the “State of Play’s” advertisements, Crowe’s character runs from the bad guy, rather than taking him down.

Had the movie featured Pitt, some rival marketers say, its prospects might look brighter. (Crowe’s last hit was 2007’s “American Gangster,” playing opposite Denzel Washington in a crime drama that sold tons of tickets to young men.)

It doesn’t help, these competing executives add, that “State of Play” can’t easily be summed up in a 30-second TV spot. Consequently, audience-tracking surveys show “State of Play’s” unaided awareness -- a key measure of a film’s potential box-office success -- is barely detectable.

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Adam Fogelson, Universal’s marketing and distribution chief, acknowledges that “State of Play” faces an uphill fight. But he is confident the film will appeal to older patrons and be embraced by critics.

“It’s definitely a movie for grown-ups,” Fogelson says. “I think it’s a really entertaining and well-made adult thriller -- a genre that over the years has delivered great box office but has been admittedly challenged in recent years.”

Langley knows that moviegoers have been gravitating toward “familiar, comforting, nostalgic, easy and branded-entertainment” movies recently, films that include Universal’s hit “Fast & Furious.”

That only magnifies “State of Play’s” obstacles.

“I am very proud of the movie, and I love Russell’s performance,” she says. “I don’t think people are turned off by Russell Crowe.”

Universal certainly isn’t. The studio just commenced production on “Nottingham,” a big-budget summer 2010 spectacle set in Sherwood Forest. And who’s playing Robin Hood? A slimmed-down Crowe.

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john.horn@latimes.com


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