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September 29, 2006

Something For the Grown-Ups

When it comes to wooing the adult audience, indies show studios how it's done

The longer I write about the film industry, the more I realize how often the suits in Tinseltown ignore two basic things: what the adult audience wants, and the concept known as economies of scale. The duo seem inextricably linked, yet very few studios and big-time producers have made the connection.

The drill runs like this: Despite all the hoo-ha about the young adult audience being Hollywood's bread and butter, the fact is that the kids are getting out of the moviegoing habit. They've got Xbox. They've got their iPods, the World Wide Web, and movies on DVD. They don't need to go to the multiplex, and in increasing numbers, they aren't doing so.

Which leaves the old farts--for the purposes of this essay, folks over 35--people who've grown up with the movie going habit and are looking for entertainment that appeals to their adult sensibilities. Sure, they'll catch a Pirates of the Caribbean or Talladega Nights, but their intellectual lives are not limited to over-the-top tentpoles or frat boy comedies. They want something else for their admission fee.

Which is where flicks like Little Miss Sunshine and The Illusionist (above) come in. The former was made for a paltry (in studio terms) $8 million, and has grossed over $40 million to date. The latter, produced for slightly more than $16 million, has taken in $28 million in a little over a month. These two films have not only become solid indie hits, but Sunshine has already grossed more than five times its production cost. That's a good return in anyone's ledger.

It's what I call the Crash effect: Last year's Oscar winner was made for a ridiculously cheap $6.5 million, yet grossed $55 million in theaters. Its success was not only unexpected, but can probably be attributed to two factors: the controversial nature of its racially-tinged screenplay, which did not pander to a teen demographic.

And lest we forget, it was not a major studio release. This is an important factoid, because the studios are behemoths whose business plans essentially leave small, high-profitability films out of the mix. In order to justify the salaries they pay to their executives and top-billed stars, the studios have to churn out big-budgeted entertainment that will appeal to the broadest possible audience, and hopefully play to the overseas market. This is all well and good when you've got a Pirates of the Caribbean which, although made for a whopping $225 million, has managed to gross nearly $1 billion worldwide. But then you're releasing the $135 million Miami Vice, which tankeroos and pulls in $63 million domestically, well, you could have made 12 Crashes with the money you lost on this puppy.

Like I said, it's all about economies of scale. The Little Miss Sunshines of the world don't cost much, which means if they flop, the loss is minimal. And if they hit, the cost-to-box-office-gross ratio can approach the astronomical.

So OK. Maybe this is why the studios got into the classics division business--to turn out cheap flicks geared towards an adult audience. But in a sense this ghettoizes these pictures, placing them in an "art house" category, where marketing budgets and release patterns are limited. Films like The Illusionist can only make so much money, because they are never allowed to break out into 2,000 or more theaters.

What does this mean for relatively inexpensive, mature subject matter films like the upcoming For Your Consideration, Babel and Little Children? Well, Babel has one-half of Brangelina in it, but heck, it's partially subtitled, which means it's box office poison. The other two? They'll be lucky to make it into 1,000 houses, no matter how much dough they rake in (and not surprisingly, all three are being released by small distribs or the boutique divisions of major studios).

So here's a heads up, Hollywood guys: The mature audience likes movies. And they still go to the movies. So if you're worried about the future of theatrical, here's something to think about: start paring down your costs, give your smaller pictures some marketing money, and make movies for the people who still go out to see them. You might be pleasantly surprised at how well your bottom line will be affected.

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