Not surprisingly for a standard EW article, the article isn't even really able to articulate the problem except by taking digs at movies that actually are financially successful, such as 2007's Iron Man, and pointing out that people didn't show up to see this Spring's offering of "State of Play".
Utterly shocked, the reporter releases these bombshells:
Even projects that might once have been considered Oscar bait have fallen prey to executives' squeamishness. Paramount turned down director Bill Condon's planned biopic about Richard Pryor, with Eddie Murphy attached to star. Universal axed a drama starring Naomi Watts about a global activist.
Well, actually... good call, Hollywood. I am an adult (no comments from the Peanut Gallery), I actually have a film degree, and I tend to think about this stuff as much as anyone would when their wife has had an Entertainment Weekly subscription since 1993. And I can't really imagine myself paying to see either of those movies.
Naomi Watts? You want to be seen as serious actress, and something that Meryl Streep would have acted the hell out of in 1986 probably sounds like your road to real Hollywood respectability. Your pal Nicole Kidman Cold Mountain respectability, but... surely some eagle eyed accountant pointed out that lately when actors get made up to look all grubby in some 3rd world country, and do something "important", nobody really shows up to see Naomi Watts or whomever pretending to be a global activist.
And, look, I like Richard Pryor's work (I even embrace his Gus Gorman in Superman III), and I understand he led a colorful, messed up life. But... I saw "Man in the Moon" and a dozen other bio-pics of entertainers. I AM an adult, which means that, like other people, I grew up on a steady diet of movies about all kinds of folks, from Johnny Cash to Charlie Chaplin, all of which sort of follow a familiar pattern of rise to fame, trouble, flagging career, some sort of ambiguous redemption as the entertainer's life really turns out not to fit too neatly in a 2 hour, 3-act structure. And our star is portraying someone so familiar, it really only sorta works...
How many of these do I need to see?
The article sites "State of Play" as an amazing adult thriller. I saw State of Play. It's a pretty standard airplane-novel story of intrigue with a standard issue hard-living journalist character with the only memorable scenes coming from a very hammy Jason Bateman. I certainly wouldn't recommend it to anyone as anything other than "it's exactly what you'd think it is."
I see three major problems with what the author champions as "grown-up" movies.
1) As I mentioned, we've seen these movies. Another biopic about someone who led a fairly standard rise-to-fame, imbibed too much and cratered might be the bedtime story you tell little starlets at night in Hollywood to warn them of their potential future, but... I'm not really sure what I'm supposed to get out of the biopic that i didn't get out of 80% of the biopics that Hollywood churns out.
"Milk" is an interesting exception as it was actually about something different, but still about a real person. Sure, it felt all a little too pat as a movie, but I didn't necessarily feel I'd seen it before a dozen times.
So many of these movies, even ones that would have been considered cutting edge have just been done to death. The similarity to other pictures that Hollywood uses to suggest that if X made money, then X+1 should also make money sort of doesn't hold up after the tenth iteration.
2) Television is actually sort of interesting now. And I have 400 channels.
Subsection 2a) reality TV isn't all dumb
If I want a meditation on the effects of alcoholism, I need not wait for Oscar season and an actor trying to get a serious role which will lead to an Oscar. I wait for Intervention to run on cable. Likewise any of the topics, including global and political issues.
Thanks to the power of voyeurism and the bizarre habits of people to want to be on TV, no matter their issue, there's often little I feel I can learn about on a topic from a multimillion dollar production than I feel I can't learn from scrolling through my cable channels.
In some cases, it actually works against the film, even while promoting it. I actually skipped Bryan Singer's "Valkyrie" not just because Tom Cruise is a boob, but because the History Channel ran a documentary on the topic in support of the movie while it was in theaters. After spending two hours watching a doc with historians interviewed, etc... It seemed sort of a waste to go see the movie.
Certainly I appreciate the attempts made by filmmakers to remain authentic, but in comparison to well-crafted documentary, its a tough sell to this viewer to really want to see an actor fake "important" topics. Even something as simple as divorce in a movie is nowhere near as bizarre, painful or compelling to watch as the slow dissolution you can get once a week on "Jon and Kate Plus 8".*
Subsection 2b) Narrative TV has improved
An odd side effect of having a blog that focuses on media and pop culture is that I am often suggested TV shows to check out. Everything from Deadwood to Whale Wars. There actually are some fairly engaging programs on premium cable, basic cable and broadcast TV. Stuff I can enjoy just as well, and with just as well written content. Hell, I may not love the show, but how much did Sex in the City make as a feature, coming from HBO subscriptions and syndicated re-runs?
3) Your definition of "Grown-Up" is useless
Sure, kids show up to see Iron Man, but its sort of useless to suggest that adults should be going to see movies like "State of Play" BEFORE they shell out their bucks to go see a dude in armor like a Camaro with missiles strapped to the hood fly around and give terrorists a hard time.
Sure, Iron Man isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea, but for the high dollar entry fee of going to see a movie these days, I'd point you to points 1 and 2 above, and what people seem to be willing to pay for, or at least what's compelling enough to convince them that it will be novel or different. Even if the plot of the Marvel origin story movies is always essentially the same (and it is), there's at least the promise of something visually interesting.
I'd also argue, that Hollywood's inner workings are now so well covered and reported, in conjunction with most folks' basic familiarity with how a movie is going to play out, that the insistence of sincerity in the making of a film and marketing of a film and obvious attempt for certain kinds of roles which are so familiar they're dubbed "Oscar Bait" (think of all the actors playing the mentally challenged, deranged, or putting on one long impression of a popular entertainer, etc... that get nominated each year), that we're sort of immune to "grown-up movies". When the process behind them seems canned and silly, and somewhat childish, how seriously can we take the final product?
I don't particularly care for "Tropic Thunder", but it did have the benefit of acknowledging to a wide audience outside of Hollywood what they already suspected about "grown-up" movies. It's a half-assed attempt to be kids playing grown-ups in situations that nobody involved with the production actually has any experience.
And point 2a, and the ready availability of documentary and reality programming may have devalued the currency of the institution of the "grown-up" movie.
So in conclusion...
I don't want to suggest that movies should only be superhero movies, or that we should be dancing on the grave of the American cinema experience in favor of the X-Boxification of the recent wave of hits.
What I would say is that (a) genre does not always equate to "kid's movie", and (b) Hollywood needs to quit playing it safe with their "grown up" films if they want to get people to show up for them. And, of course, realize when the audience is no longer onboard with your commonly held belief (you may want to believe Julia Roberts is box office gold, but that well ran dry for the average movie goer about 10 years ago). Know when you're just making more of the same (stop making celebrity biopics). Know when your mall-theater audience isn't likely to take your mega-star seriously in a role (Tom Cruise in anything. Naomi Watts as the White Savior of the earth). Don't assume Star Power is enough to get me to the box office. I didn't see "Michael Clayton" because I had no idea what it was about thanks to the plotless trailer (George Clooney threatening Tilda Swinton does not equal my $9).
Quit playing it safe and bring something new to the table, and we can talk.
*seriously. That show is just messed up.