Hollywood Stars and the Death of the “Adult Drama”
Over the last year or so, there has been much talk by film critics and filmmakers about the decline of the “adult drama.” Recently, filmmaker John Hillcoat claimed that studios are only interested in franchise films and comedies: “To make a film now is to make a film at the lowest point since cinema began.”
Is this simply sour grapes from a filmmaker who can’t get funding for his next project, or are we truly hearing the death knell of adult-oriented drama? It’s clear that the number of adult dramas has plummeted since 1999, which was perhaps the peak year of the “Indiewood” phenomenon, when studio specialty divisions flooded theaters with films like Boys Don’t Cry and The Cider House Rules.
What has happened in the last ten years? The Independent argues that “in these recession-hit times the studios are playing it safe” – but this doesn’t make sense for a couple of reasons. First, times of economic uncertainty are the only times in which Hollywood doesn’t play it safe. The “Hollywood Renaissance” of the sixties and seventies over which so many cinephiles rhapsodize was a direct result of the massive industrial recession of 1969-1971. The studios are more than willing to shake things up if they’re losing money. But they’re not losing money – 2009 box office grosses were up a huge 5.9% from 2008.
With things going well, studios are likely to continue their risk-adverse production strategies – and adult dramas have proven time and again that they are risky propositions. Recent adult dramas have disappointed at the box office (see Duplicity, The Soloist, Amelia, State of Play, The Lovely Bones, etc.) — especially compared to similarly budgeted (or cheaper) comedies like The Proposal or Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Most adult dramas released by the major studios can be considered mid-budget films, costing somewhere between $20 and $70 million. The Washington Times notes that adult dramas usually gross somewhere in the $40 million range, which suggests a relatively small but consistent audience.
So how do studios make the adult drama economically viable? The Washington Times suggests that they follow the model of comedies and horror films – keep budgets low to ensure profitability. They can do this, the article argues, by avoiding “star-driven projects”, as huge star salaries account for much of an adult drama’s budget.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Traditionally, Hollywood has used two kinds of basic audience appeals – genre-based and star-based. Unlike slapstick comedies or horror films, the adult drama is too nebulous a category for studios to use genre-based appeals in marketing — adult dramas need stars in order to establish their identity in the marketplace. Second, it’s likely that the stars are responsible for supplying the consistent box office returns mentioned by The Washington Times. Would Duplicity have made $40 million in North America with an unknown actress instead of Julia Roberts? By eliminating stars, the adult drama would be relegated to the low-budget (under $20 million) realm of the “Indiewood” drama – a category that has become increasingly marginalized recently, as studios close their specialty divisions.
The decline of the adult drama reflects a larger historical trend away from star-driven films and toward genre-based projects. This trend can be located as far back as the 1950s, when studios began to utilize exploitation strategies (including an emphasis on spectacle and controversial content) into their “A” features. The star system isn’t entirely dead, but it has been subordinated: in the classical studio era, star-driven films dominated, while today the most successful star vehicles are first and foremost genre films (I Am Legend, Pirates of the Caribbean). Recognizing this, the industry has already begun to “correct” inflated star salaries, something I suspect will rejuvenate the adult drama.