Studios unsure of how to handle specialty pics

There’s a growing coterie of movie people these days who argue that “serious” films no longer constitute a “serious” business. The mission of movies, they remind us, is to entertain, not enlighten, which explains why so many so-called message movies tended to underperform at the box office this year. Hence the kudo race to date has been more about casualties rather than successes.

So have “serious” specialty movies become an endangered species?

The answer is a firm “no.” But arguably some significant mistakes are being made in the way serious films are being made and marketed. The lessons can be categorized as follows:

  • The studio star-driven mentality doesn’t apply to movies in the specialty sector. Stars like Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt failed to create audiences for films about Iraq or Jesse James, thus reminding us anew that serious films reflect the visions of filmmakers, not stars or studio chiefs.

  • Serious films mandate rigorous budgeting in order to yield return on investment. It’s hard to empathize with financial entities that spend upwards of $30 million on a specialty movie then whine about the limited return.

  • Serious films, like their tentpole brethren, must still be relevant to an international audience. Despite an occasional stumble, Focus Films under James Schamus has redeemed its bets through the outstanding overseas grosses of films like “Lust, Caution,” “Eastern Promises” and “Atonement.”

  • Films with a social or political point of view must still tell a lucid narrative and avoid shrill message-making. It’s courageous to make movies about Iraq, but the similarities of these films both in terms of sensibility and even casting are disturbing. It’s noteworthy that two of the most promising new films in the specialty sector are “Juno” and “Atonement” — a brash comedy and a period romance, neither of them politically relevant.

Some argue that the true culprit this fall was the overabundance of serious films, rather than their content or marketing strategy. The problem with this argument is that it’s statistically untrue. Hedge-fund money spurred the production of some marginal films, and studio specialty units were aggressive this fall and winter, but overall output was not exceptionally strong.

Thus it’s disappointing to hear talk about future cutbacks or disillusionment. If anything, this season’s woes were a case of expectations exceeding reality — especially on the part of the studio-backed units.

When I was a young executive at Paramount, it was customary for the studio to release art films alongside commercial product. Thus 1970 releases included “Love Story” as well as “The Conformist” and everyone (the studio as well as serious filmmakers) seemed thoroughly satisfied with the end results. Both the production and marketing budgets on the art-film side were more restrictive, but in that era the audience was still burgeoning for these movies — even for foreign-made subtitled films.

Sadly, the subtitled genre has virtually disappeared, but English-language specialty product is still in heavy demand. And with sharper strategy — and more intelligent expectations — the market will continue heading in that direction.

“Serious” movies may not fit the Cruise or Pitt marketing model, but that doesn’t mean the overall business model is broken.

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