- The Washington Times - Friday, April 24, 2009

Another weekend, another flop in the adult drama genre: The journalism thriller “State of Play” took in barely $14 million at the box office, good for a distant second place.

Adult dramas have been foundering for months, failing to draw their target demographic off the couch and into the theater. “State of Play” seems destined to join a growing list of similar movies that, despite their star power, missed the top spot at the box office before fizzling out altogether.

Movies for grown-ups aren’t dead, but saving the genre might require a radical shift in Hollywood’s business model for such pictures.

Last month’s “Duplicity,” starring A-listers Julia Roberts and Clive Owen, pulled in less than $14 million on opening weekend and has been struggling to reach the $40 million mark. The month before that saw “The International,” another spy thriller starring Mr. Owen, open to less than $10 million and total less than $26 million.

Then there was October’s “Body of Lies,” which starred two box-office superstars (Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio), was directed by another (Ridley Scott) — and totally missed with audiences. It opened in third place for the weekend with less than $13 million and ended up taking in $39 million domestically — not much more than half the film’s $70 million budget.

The failure of these pictures has led to much hand-wringing among critics and a series of stories in the press decrying the taste of modern audiences. The Los Angeles Times published one such piece the day before “State of Play” opened, headlined “Dismal fate may await ‘State of Play.’”

“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,” wrote John Horn, noting that people are instead more interested in franchises and fluffier fare.

Looking at the box-office results, however, it becomes clear that there is a dependable, albeit smaller than desired, audience for these movies. The numbers are consistent: There’s typically a $12 million to $14 million opening, with a respectable opening-weekend multiplier of three that leads to a box-office take in the $40 million range. Though it’s true that some, like “The International,” miss that mark, the opposite also is true — “Michael Clayton,” another member of the adult-drama club, grossed almost $50 million.

The real trick is budgeting these movies at a level that makes them profitable. As Jeffrey Wells, author of the movie blog Hollywood Elsewhere, succinctly put it in the wake of Mr. Horn’s column: “No more star salaries.”

Hollywood needs to rethink its business model for this type of picture. Paying a movie star like a movie star in adult-oriented dramas is no longer a fiscally responsible move. The reported budget for “State of Play” was $60 million; a full third of that went to Mr. Crowe. Similarly, it is thought that more than half of the budget for “Body of Lies” went into procuring the services of Mr. Crowe and Mr. DiCaprio.

None of this is meant as a slap at the stars involved. Mr. Crowe is arguably the finest lead actor in major films today, and Mr. DiCaprio isn’t far behind. However, the fiscal dilemma is undeniable: The numbers they command make certain projects financially untenable. Paying Mr. Crowe $20 million to portray Robin Hood in the now-filming, multiple-age-range-friendly “Nottingham” makes sense. Paying him $20 million to play a pudgy D.C. journalist in a movie aimed at a demo more inclined to wait for the DVD than trek to the movie theater does not.

Instead of focusing on star-driven projects — and the star-driven salary demands that come with them — Hollywood needs to look to a different financial model: the one employed by producers of genre fare and adult comedies.

Movie moguls have long understood that there’s a built-in audience for horror pictures: Make it cheaply enough, and the opening weekend alone will pay off the studio’s gamble.

Producer-director Judd Apatow has brought that sensibility to adult comedies, with even more impressive results. By combining cheap casts and less on-location shooting, Apatow-style pictures are reliable money makers.

There’s a reason the multiplex always has one or two such features playing at any given time. A great script doesn’t need to be brought to life by big-name stars, just talented actors. The two aren’t necessarily synonymous.

Another option is the Woody Allen model of filmmaking. Because Mr. Allen is a prestige brand in American movies and is still making good, if no longer classic, films, he can persuade name actors to work for cheap: Scarlett Johansson, Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell almost certainly all made less than they would have on the open market when they chose to star in pictures by Mr. Allen.

Indeed, some actors already have embraced this approach. George Clooney deferred payment for “Michael Clayton” in favor of profit participation, was paid $1 for “Good Night and Good Luck” and accepted just $1 million for “O Brother, Where Art Thou.” These hefty discounts — along with healthy paychecks for more commercial fare such as the “Oceans” movies — have enabled the actor to build a bank account and tackle a variety of challenging roles without sending studios hurtling into the red.

The adult drama isn’t in danger of extinction, but it definitely needs to evolve if it’s going to stay relevant in the modern business landscape.

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