Adults steering clear of movies

Recession forces studios to aim younger

Pricey, star-driven thrillers and dramas will struggle for profitability as the recession intensifies a trend toward youth-dominated openings.

That's the consensus after the weekend's soft opening for Universal's Russell Crowe starrer, the latest in a series of misfires by adult-oriented releases. Investigative-journo thriller "State of Play" rung up just $14.1 million over its first frame, meaning the Americanized adaptation of a British miniseries must overperform dramatically overseas for the $60 million production to break even.

The pic's travails reflect this rude awakening in Hollywood: Older demos may be resisting the recent enthusiasm for moviegoing. Certainly it's been months since anything has caught fire at the arthouses.

But it's the ill-fated outings of studios' highest-profile adult fare that's stirred the most concern.

"Not as many adults are going to the movies because of the recession," a highly placed studio exec lamented. "More and more, it's the kids who come out and support the pictures over opening weekend and not as much the older adults."

The good news is that ticket sales are pacing ahead of last year's by a healthy single-digit percentage, and boxoffice is up by a double-digit margin on a calendar-year basis. In fact, the market has been so robust it can produce even the odd adult-driven success: Fox's Liam Neeson starrer "Taken" -- produced for under $30 million -- rang up $218 million in worldwide boxoffice after unspooling in January.

"The success of 'Taken' has a lot to do with the audience rooting so hard for Liam Neeson to find his daughter in the picture," Fox distribution president Bruce Snyder said. "The audience involvement is great. That personal involvement doesn't happen often with these kind of movies. It's more common in the younger movies, but that emotional note is important to hit."

Marketing also figures prominently in any success or failure at the boxoffice.

"Adults are a harder audience to motivate, and the problem with some adult movies is compounded by their not being high-concept films that you can boil down to 30-second spots," a top studio exec said. "With 'Taken,' it was, 'You took my kid, motherfucker, and you're going to pay.' "

A succession of adult-oriented boxoffice laggards has been noticeable for at least six months, though the trend was in evidence with 2007's critically lauded but commercially constrained "Michael Clayton." Warner Bros. rung up less than $93 million worldwide with the George Clooney starrer.

More recently, Uni absorbed a bottom-line hit with its recent Julia Roberts-Clive Owen starrer "Duplicity," a mere $39 million domestic performer through five frames that's unlikely to compensate with outsized foreign coin. Warners registered a similar sum with the thriller "Body of Lies" -- an October opener starring Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio that overperformed only modestly overseas -- while Sony's political thriller "The International" unspooled over Valentine's Day and raked in less than $50 million worldwide.

With films like "State of Play," critical praise is nice but goes only so far. If the kids don't take notice, then it's fingers-crossed for a successful DVD release to stanch some of the inevitable red ink -- though adult thrillers also have been a tough sell on shiny disc.

The worrisome trend is likely to put additional pressure on studios to rein in production costs on adult-skewing films where possible, including talent deals.

"If these things were made for a reasonable cost, it wouldn't be a problem," a studio exec groused.

"Not a lot of them break through," acknowledged another top distribution exec. "With an R-rating you're playing to an older audience, and the subject matter has to be something besides politics. People at the moment are kind of fed up with that stuff."

Warners hit big last year with Clint Eastwood's older-skewing but leggy "Gran Torino," a neighborhood-vigilante tale of personal redemption. Like the avenging-father thriller "Taken," "Torino" was a crowd-pleaser with emotional wallop. The pic grossed $237 million worldwide.

"Material-wise, I thought 'State of Play' was too 'been there, done that,'" a studio exec mused.

The comment echoed sentiment heard repeatedly last week when pre-release interest in the pic prompted forecasts for a limp "Play" bow.

"The opening was better than expected," a Uni publicist noted Monday.
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