The big winners at this year’s Academy Awards: adult moviegoers.
For years, the studios have fixated on young men in their teens and 20s, serving up big-budget popcorn movies populated with dazzling visual effects, comic book heroes and high-voltage action sequences. They’ve also made films geared to win awards, but oftentimes those pictures bring prestige without huge financial returns.
At the Oscars on Sunday night, however, six of the nine best picture nominees were hits that earned more than $100 million at the domestic box office. That could lead Hollywood to green-light more projects aimed at sophisticated audiences, filmmakers and studio executives say.
“I think an adult audience is really rising up,” said “Django Unchained” director Quentin Tarantino backstage at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood after winning the Oscar for best original screenplay. “That we’re not [just] making movies for teenagers anymore is kind of cool.”
Although there were no blockbusters along the lines of “Titanic” or “Avatar” among the Oscar-nominated films, the lesson from the just-concluded awards season seems to be that people ages 40 and older will go to the movies when they’ve got something to see.
This year’s slate of best picture nominees included “Lincoln,” “Les Miserables” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” all of which resonated with older filmgoers. The winner, “Argo” was seen by many as a throwback to the kind of movies made in the 1970s, with director Ben Affleck citing “All the President’s Men” as an inspiration.
“It does encourage the next opportunity to take that leap of faith,” said Fox Filmed Entertainment Chairman Jim Gianopulos, discussing his studio’s “Life of Pi,” a financial and creative risk that won four Oscars and has grossed nearly $600 million worldwide. “When you have this kind of assembly of incredible filmmaking talent, it inspires you to take creative risks.”
The success of many of the nominated films was driven by adults, an audience segment that has a long history of going to the movies.
Older moviegoers “are a very reliable segment of the audience that typically still has a fairly high incidence of moviegoing — it is part of their social fabric,” said Doug Belgrad, president of Columbia Pictures, the Sony Pictures Entertainment unit that released “Zero Dark Thirty.” That best picture nominee has grossed $91.6 million in the U.S.
According to a study by the Motion Picture Assn. of America, in 2011 there were 3.1 million people ages 50 to 59 who saw a film once a month or more, up slightly from a year earlier. And although the study found that the number of frequent moviegoers ages 40 to 49 declined over the same period, those in the 25-to-39 age group rose significantly, to 9.7 million from 7.7 million a year earlier.
The roughly 76 million Americans born during the baby boom years of 1946 to 1964 — many of whom are now empty nesters with more leisure time — could be further tapped by studios to great gain. But not if they don’t make the kind of movies that compel older adults to leave the comfort of their living rooms.
David Sadava and Dianne Sundby, friends in their early 60s, made sure they saw several of this year’s nominated movies — including “Argo,” “Lincoln” and “Zero Dark Thirty” — before Sunday’s Oscar show.
“To have that many movies like that in one year is kind of remarkable,” said Sadava, a biology researcher who lives in the San Fernando Valley and accompanied Sundby to a recent showing of the Steven Soderbergh thriller “Side Effects” at the Arclight Hollywood.
“The ‘Die Hard’ sequel, ‘Twilight’ movies — they are not my thing. We are too old,” said Sadava, adding that compared with most years, the recent holiday season featured more films that piqued his interest.
Still, popcorn fare isn’t going away. Every studio is betting on sequels in the next year, including “The Hangover III” from Warner Bros., Universal Pictures’ “Fast & Furious 6,” and “Iron Man 3" from Walt Disney Co. The strategy makes sense: Eight of the top 10 grossing films in the U.S. in 2012 were franchises.
“We will always be mired in sequels and remakes,” said film marketing veteran Russell Schwartz. “Studio folks are still adhering to the mantra of taking care of what their corporate parents want.”
Although any real shift in executives’ choices may take a couple of years to become apparent because of the laborious moviemaking process, insiders are already eyeing which upcoming 2013 releases could be both critical and box-office successes. Among those are DreamWorks Studios’ “The Fifth Estate,” director Bill Condon’s film about WikiLeaks; Sony Pictures’ “Monuments Men,” a World War II thriller that George Clooney will star in and direct; and Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and distributed by Paramount Pictures.
But executives caution that blindly following a trend when choosing which movies to make isn’t wise.
“If you base it on movies that are popular now, you are going to get your heart broken,” said Stacey Snider, co-chairman of DreamWorks. Her company made “Lincoln,” which has grossed $178.6 million domestically and won two Oscars. “If we were trend-followers or made movies because they felt du jour, we never would have made ‘The Help,’ we never would have made ‘Lincoln.’”
Ted Mundorff, chief executive of Landmark Theatres, whose West Los Angeles multiplex has become a popular weekend destination among adults, said he hopes that this Oscar season was not an anomaly.
“The studios are smart,” he said. “They say, ‘What does business, and let’s make another film that can attract the same audience.’ What you always fear from a studio is that we get ‘Lincoln 9' and eventually ‘Lincoln 12.’”
Studio executives say that they would be inclined to take more risks on adult fare if costs can be kept down. Donna Langley, co-chairman of Universal, said that a movie like her studio’s “Les Miserables,” which cost $61 million to produce — a relatively moderate budget for a star-driven musical — made sense economically. The film, the winner of three Oscars, has taken in $146.7 million domestically.
“Both studios and creators are saying, ‘Look, we don’t want to forgo this genre,’” Langley said. “It becomes a question of rolling up our sleeves and looking at the financial model.”
Adam Goodman, president of the Paramount Film Group, said that in years past, his studio would have made a movie like the Oscar-nominated “Flight,” which cost the company just $30 million, but the budget would have been two or three times higher.
“We know the audience is there for that kind of movie,” he said. “The challenge is to adjust the budgets.”
Helping the studios shoulder the risk are independent financial partners such as producers Megan Ellison, who bankrolled the $45 million-budget “Zero Dark Thirty,” and Graham King, who put up half the money to make “Argo,” which cost $44.5 million.
King, who won the best picture Oscar in 2007 for “The Departed,” said he is encouraged by the commercial success of this year’s Academy Award pictures.
“For me, and the kind of films I make, it opens my range.”