Are movies for grown-ups dead…or just dying?

“You’re dead if you aim only for kids. Adults are only kids grown up, anyway.” — Walt Disney

So what would Uncle Walt think about the state of the movies nowadays?

Have we infantilized the culture to the point that motion pictures for grown-ups — the kind of prestige productions developed and distributed by major studios, not indies or “telefilms” — are commercially kaput?

The Hurt Locker made all of $16,400,000 in theatrical release.  That’s even after it won the Oscar for Best Picture, Best Director, et al.   Were people craving the chance to see a harrowing drama about an unpopular war?  Hardly.  And I’m as big a fan of Iron Man 2 as I am any serious topic.   But it demonstrates more than just how difficult it is to sell an Iraq movie; to the main players in the movie marketplace, it’s got to be evidence of how audiences want flash, not substance.   For all their puffery about supporting quality and adult-level drama, studios and distributors would rather have a Transformers 2 on those screens than a Hurt Locker.  Or a The English Patient, or an In The Bedroom.

From a business standpoint, who can blame them?   Blame our own appetites for spectacle, and the need for “event” over resonance (and don’t blame Lucas, Spielberg or Michael Bay for inventing a better mousetrap.   People vote at the box office with their wallets, without any gun to their heads).  Blame HBO and cable networks that have put first-class drama front and center, enforcing the notion that the small screen (well, if you can call a 52″ LCD small) is for intensely-felt drama, and the big screen is for spectacular, crowd-pleasing action that panders relentlessly to every audience up and down the age scale, but whose epicenter lies within an audience younger than many of my socks.

The trend is irreversible.   Exhibitors are making huge investments in new technologies — digital projection was just the start.   3D and IMAX are spreading across more and more screens.   These are investments you don’t see optimal returns on by screening the latest Woody Allen film four times a day.

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