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Oscars show more sophistication with movies aimed at adults

By DANIEL MILLER LOS ANGELES TIMES

This article was published February 28, 2013 at 2:32 a.m.

— The big winners at this year’s Academy Awards: adult moviegoers.

For years, the studios have fixated on young men in their teens and 20s, serving up big-budget popcorn movies populated with dazzling visual effects, comic book heroes and high-voltage action sequences. They’ve also made films geared to win awards, but oftentimes those pictures bring prestige without huge financial returns.

At the Oscars on Sunday night, however, six of the nine best picture nominees earned more than $100 million at the domestic box office. That could lead Hollywood to green-light more projects aimed at sophisticated audiences, filmmakers and studio executives say.

“I think an adult audience is really rising up,” says Django Unchained director Quentin Tarantino backstage at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood after winning the Oscar for best original screenplay. “That we’re not [just] making movies for teenagers anymore is kind of cool.”

Although there were no blockbusters along the lines ofTitanic or Avatar among the Oscar-nominated films, the lesson from the just-concluded awards season seems to be that people ages 40 and older will go to the movies when they’ve got something to see.

This year’s slate of best picture nominees included Lincoln, Les Miserables and Silver Linings Playbook, all of which resonated with older filmgoers. The winner, Argo, was seen by many as a throwback to the kind of movies made in the 1970s, with director Ben Affleck citing All the President’s Men as an inspiration.

“It does encourage the next opportunity to take that leap of faith,” says Fox Entertainment Chairman Jim Gianopulos, discussing his studio’s Life of Pi, a financial and creative risk that won four Oscars and has grossed nearly $600 million worldwide. “When you have this kind of assembly of incredible filmmaking talent, it inspires you to take creativerisks.”

The success of many of the nominated films was driven by adults, an audience segment that has a long history of going to the movies.

Older moviegoers “are a very reliable segment of the audience that typically stillhas a fairly high incidence of moviegoing - it is part of their social fabric,” says Doug Belgrad, president of Columbia Pictures, which released Zero Dark Thirty. That best picture nominee has grossed $91.6 million in the United States.

According to a study by the Motion Picture Association of America, in 2011 there were 3.1million people ages 50 to 59 who saw a film once a month or more, up slightly from a year earlier. And although the study found that the number of frequent moviegoers ages 40 to 49 declined over the same period, those in the 25-to-39 age group rose significantly, to 9.7 million from 7.7 million a year earlier.

With roughly 76 million Americans born during the baby boom years of 1946 to 1964, this group - a large swath of whom are now empty nesters with more leisure time - could be further tapped by studios to great gain. But not if they don’t make the kind of movies that compel older adults to leave the comfort oftheir living rooms.

Still, popcorn fare isn’t going away. Every studio is betting on sequels in the next year, including The Hangover III from Warner Bros., Universal Pictures’ Fast & Furious 6, and Iron Man 3 from Walt Disney Co. The strategy makes sense: Eight of the top 10 grossing films in the U.S. in 2012 were franchises.

“We will always be mired in sequels and remakes,” says film marketing veteran Russell Schwartz. “Studio folks are still adhering to the mantra of taking care of what their corporate parents want.”

Although any real shift in executives’ choices may take a couple of years to become apparent because of the laborious moviemaking process, insiders are already eyeing which forthcoming 2013 releases could be critical and box-office successes. Among those are Dream-Works Studios’ The Fifth Estate, director Bill Condon’s film about WikiLeaks; Columbia Pictures’ Monuments Men, a World War II thriller that George Clooney will star in and direct; and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and distributed by Paramount Pictures.

Weekend, Pages 35 on 02/28/2013

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