Hollywood Stars and the Death of the “Adult Drama”

February 2, 2010
By | 16 Comments

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.

George Clooney in MICHAEL CLAYTON (2007)



16 Responses to “ Hollywood Stars and the Death of the “Adult Drama” ”

  1. Jonathan Gray on February 2, 2010 at 10:11 PM

    Neat post, Brad.

    As much money goes into salaries, that much or more often goes into hype and marketing, too, though, which makes me wonder if another strategy is to try and reinvent delivery some way. The ol’ chuck-it-on-a-screen-and-advertise-it-everywhere-we-can-afford technique may have limited utility, while also sucking the budget dry. I can’t pretend to know what would be better, so I don’t write this from any magical vantage point, but I wonder if changes that allowed tighter, more intimate, cheaper marketing to a niche could be made?

  2. Ky Boyd on February 2, 2010 at 10:32 PM

    The death of adult drama has been highly over-rated and overplayed. It is interesting that in comparing adults dramas with other types of films recent films like The Blindside, Invictus, Up in the Air, Crazy Heart, The Hurt Locker, and Gran Torino were not mentioned. State of Play wasn’t well marketed and released in a weak period. Same for Duplicity. Lovely Bones is too arty for some and too CGI focused for others. Technology shouldn’t replace story telling, though that is often what happens.

  3. Bradley Schauer on February 3, 2010 at 12:03 AM

    Adult dramas will always exist, as long as studios continue to value prestige (i.e. Academy Awards) and their relationships with directors like Clint Eastwood and Steven Soderbergh.

    Having said that, the numbers don’t lie — there has been a precipitous drop in the number of adult dramas released by major distributors in the last ten years. We’ve gone from approximately 60 films in 1999 to around 20 this year (depending on your definition of adult drama.) If you go back twenty years, you see lots of star-driven legal thrillers and family melodramas that simply aren’t produced too often anymore. Is it because these genres are now largely the domain of television?

    Likewise, there will always be a handful of breakout adult drama hits, like UP IN THE AIR (THE BLIND SIDE seems like a family comedy-drama to me.) But adult dramas are still much less profitable as a genre than something like comedies or horror films. INVICTUS and THE HURT LOCKER have hardly burned up the box office, for instance, although they’ll get a boost from the Oscar nods.

    • Jonathan Gray on February 3, 2010 at 12:05 AM

      The Blind Side is a horror film, no? 😉

  4. Annie Petersen on February 3, 2010 at 9:07 AM

    It’s not only the loss of the adult drama, but the loss of the mid-level film budget. The big studios have jettisoned their specialty brands and focusing on tentpoles, while small indie films (which previously would have received around $5 for the pickup at say, Sundance, and then a massive advertising campaign) are now the provenance of IFC. Summit actually might be the studio to look to for the return of such middle-of-the-road budgeting — The Hurt Locker, for example, cost $11 million, and I would definitely consider it a star-less adult drama, and impeccably done as well.

    • Josh David Jackson on February 3, 2010 at 9:50 AM

      One could argue that The Hurt Locker makes an anti-star statement of sorts considering the . . . thing . . . that happens to the actor in the first scene. (Did we ever decide how we’re going to handle spoilers on Antenna?)

  5. Mary Beltrán on February 3, 2010 at 9:17 AM

    Provocative post; thanks, Brad. I agree with what you have to say about the trend away from star-driven films.

    In a speech to independent producers in September 2009, Bill Mechanic, former chairman/CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment and now head of his own production company (and former brother-in-law of my sister), criticized what he described as the troubled state of the film industry, resulting from, among other factors, overproduction and a failure to produce many films in recent years that are “individualistic and compelling.” Is this part of the decline of the star-driven drama and, I would argue, of film stars themselves? Notably, film stars are playing a more limited role in driving media production today, while celebrities from other mediums are becoming more prominent and powerful.

    • Myles McNutt on February 3, 2010 at 11:00 AM

      I wonder, though, whether the studios aren’t still “holding out for a hero,” so to speak. There’s no doubt that they’re heading in other directions in terms of marketing and creating films, and that star-driven dramas don’t have the appeal they once had, but whenever a film breaks out (like The Hangover) there’s still that talk of someone like Zach Galifianakis being “the next big star.” Will we ever give up on the quest to return to those golden years?

  6. Derek Kompare on February 3, 2010 at 10:23 AM

    Great overview, Brad. This is one of those areas where some good ol’ empirical number-crunching makes a lot of sense. While many of those numbers are mysterious (e.g., actual film budgets, star salaries, details of financing, etc.), they can be effectively ballparked, and other numbers are more concrete (BO, # of releases, market share, etc.).

    I do want to point out that while the box office soared in 2009, DVD sales–which have dwarfed domestic BO–continued to plummet. That’s one reason, for examples, that Sony Pictures laid off 450 people on Monday. Many of these “adult drama” titles that peak around $40M in theaters probably do much better, and have a longer shelf life, on DVD, especially given the target audience demographics.

    Still, I think there is a massive conceptual shift going on in Hollywood. Sure, there will still be an appetite (especially among a certain entrenched segment of the Hollywood power structure) for “serious” films with 40+ big-name stars and star directors; it’ll just be increasingly less prevalent. Exploitable properties (e.g., Transformers), hot genres (e.g., The Hangover), and niche tastes (e.g., Inglorious Basterds) are the new normal, and none of them require a $20M A-lister. Mary’s point about “celebrities” rather than “movie stars” is also dead right: there are no “movie stars” under 30 (not in the Clooney, Hanks, Nicholson, Pacino, Roberts, Streep sense of the word), for better or worse, and our “movie” culture has to adjust to this new eco-system.

  7. Myles McNutt on February 3, 2010 at 10:55 AM

    Some great thoughts here, but I’m itching to move those quotation marks from Adult Drama to Death. While their may be less of them, and their box office success may have been damaged by a collection of films with a host of creative/marketing challenges, the adult drama will always be at the centrepiece of the awards race, and that awards race will always be a dominant force in the months of October to February. So studios (small and large) keep making these movies because they have the potential to boost their reputation, just as HBO keeps making big budget miniseries that no one actually watches in order to win awards and convince people that subscribing to HBO gives you something you can’t get anywhere else.

    What I like about the focus here is that it’s not that these films aren’t being made, but rather that they’re being made differently. But if the awards system isn’t going to change (which it isn’t, although I’ll acknowledge that the narratives of how we read award shows are somewhat changing), these films will always exist, and I’m excited to see how they manage to strike that balance in the future.

    • Derek Kompare on February 3, 2010 at 11:23 AM

      Along those lines, one of the exciting things about the expanded Best Pictures category is how it complicates these long-established notions of “award-worthy” films. The ten nominees are a very diverse list (relative to Academy history), instead of all clustering around the “serious adult drama” description like it was a campfire. I hope this has a long-term effect of giving some breathing room to the major categories, and recognizing (and awarding) the diversity of (granted: largely mainstream) film.

      • Myles McNutt on February 3, 2010 at 11:37 AM

        It doesn’t always work that way, of course: some voting systems are so entrenched that allowing in more candidates is likely to simply usher in “more of the same” (like when the Emmys went from 5 to 6 acting nominees, which I wrote about here).

        But the Top 10 did legitimately bring in some candidates (District 9, An Education, Up) that make for some exciting narratives, and that feel like the Academy extending the label of “Best Picture nominee” into new directions. It was meant to be a populist shift, to drive viewership more than anything else, but it ended up creating something more creatively diverse at the same time, which is a nice side effect that offsets the sense that this is simply a kneejerk reaction to The Dark Knight being snubbed.

      • Jonathan Gray on February 3, 2010 at 12:50 PM

        Great point, Derek. If the Big Ten can break down that discursive category, we might be all the better off. Mind you, we’d need more acting noms, too, to lure the talent into doing unconventional stuff too. After all, it’s one thing for District 9 to be nominated, but it would be another for its star to be nominated alongside the usual parade of bereft fathers, Nazis or Nazi victims, people with disabilities, psychopaths, and famous people from history 😉

        • Myles McNutt on February 3, 2010 at 1:25 PM

          Nothing substantial to add, but Sharlto Copley blew me away in District 9, so I approve of that particular example.

          • Derek Kompare on February 3, 2010 at 1:45 PM

            Not to mention Ed Asner in Up, but that’s a whole other can of worms, I suppose…

            • Myles McNutt on February 3, 2010 at 1:48 PM

              Sadly, that particular can of worms went out the window with Andy Serkis not grabbing a nomination for Two Towers (and was further evidenced this year by Zoe Saldana being entirely out of the race despite Avatar’s huge success), and that was only halfway to animated.

              The pity is, Ed Asner didn’t even get an Annie nomination.