Studios revving up retro

Period pics will dominate fall release schedule

For those ready to move past the endless stream of dark dramas from fall 2007, get ready for a new barrage — from the 1960s, the 1940s and the 1780s.

Studios are preparing to unleash a hailstorm of period movies — in broad terms, films set in an era other than the current — in the fall, at times turning the multiplex circa 2008 into a veritable cinematic museum.

The films range from large studio productions (Universal/Clint Eastwood's 1920s missing-child drama "Changeling" and Fox/Baz Luhrmann's World War II epic "Australia") to specialty releases (Searchlight's midcentury Southern tale "The Secret Life of Bees" and Miramax's 1960s Catholic-school drama "Doubt"). They veer from costume dramas (the 18th century Keira Knightley quill-and-wig extravaganza "The Duchess") to political sagas (Ron Howard's "Frost/Nixon") to 1950s family dramas (the Sam Mendes-Leonardo DiCaprio collaboration "Revolutionary Road") to biopics (Gus Van Sant's "Milk") to yet more WWII throwbacks (Ed Zwick's "Defiance," Mikael Hafstrom's "Shanghai" and Spike Lee's "Miracle at St. Anna").

"It seems like Hollywood is merging with the History Channel," media critic Robert Thompson noted wryly.

The latest wave of period movies is notable for several reasons. These movies are coming all at once — scores of pictures crammed into a period of just 10 or 12 weeks. The stakes and expectations are higher because the overall number of fall specialty releases is expected to be down by as much as 25% from the nearly 70 titles released last year. And these period films are being released as questions linger from last season about whether the audience can find enough with which to identify in fall releases.

That combination is enough to make some executives nervous. "It's a lot of period movies, and it's going to be a question of who'll be able to connect," said one high-ranking specialty exec releasing a period film.

Nonetheless, development execs point to reasons why historical suddenly is fashionable despite the risks.

In a time when summer releases have trumped fall movies on spectacle, they say, it's a chance for films to chisel out a new niche. Boxoffice Mojo president Brandon Gray suggests that period pictures are in effect the fall's answer to the summer tentpole.

"A movie set in period can be a selling point because it transports you to another world without being a fantasy or relying on big special effects," he said.

Period movies also can allow a story to be told in ways that contemporary-set movies can't tell them. "In a period movie you can strip out modern American irony and ambiguity and get away with it," Thompson said. "A contemporary movie that has absolutes would seems old-fashioned. But if you set it during a previous time, you can make it credible."

Last year, such movies as "Michael Clayton," "Rendition" and "In the Valley of Elah" took on current issues through a contemporary lens. This crop looks at equally large themes — the corruption of power ("Changeling"), the innocent victims of war ("Australia," "St. Anna," "Defiance") and the slipperiness of truth ("Doubt," "Frost/Nixon") — but uses the distancing mechanism of period.

But for all the advantages, will consumers bite on stories that often take place before many of them were born? Execs acknowledge the challenges.

"The situations won't be as relatable, so you need to find something relatable that transcends the era," said Fox co-president of theatrical marketing Pam Levine, whose company will try to turn "Australia" into a wide play.

Marketing guru Terry Press, who at DreamWorks successfully marketed such period films as "Gladiator" and "Seabiscuit," also sees a fine line. "You don't want to confuse period with old-fashioned (in your marketing). That's the quickest way to lose a big part of the audience."

For a "Gladiator" spot, DreamWorks cut footage from the film with NFL highlights to give it a modern feel. Miramax, which undertook a similar promotion for "Gangs of New York" under the Weinsteins six years ago, will try to bridge the historical and modern in "Brideshead Revisited," the class-themed WWII movie. "We want to show people that the issues of class and being an outsider are still very relatable today," Miramax marketing chief Jason Cassidy said.

No matter how the material gets played, though, there might be a commercial ceiling. Said one development exec, "American audiences like occasional period movies, but they do want them every weekend?" (partialdiff)