Serious movies hit skids

Specialty arms fail to ignite with issue films

Last year, the fall was all about serious-minded, politically motivated pics, from “Brokeback Mountain” to “Good Night, and Good Luck.” This season, moviegoers — and crix — seem more interested in superspies, Beantown mobsters and kooky Kazakhs.

In contrast with 2005’s fourth-quarter somber and successful films, this year’s “serious” projects from studio specialty arms are struggling to find traction in a season cluttered with weighty subjects.

Miramax’s “The Queen” (see separate story) has played royally, and Sony Classics “Volver” has been posting big numbers in its limited run, but most pics have found themselves stalling out so far.

In contrast with last year’s “Brokeback,” “Good Night” and “Capote,” pics like “Babel,” “Bobby,” “The Last King of Scotland,” “Little Children” and “Marie Antoinette” are struggling in a crowded marketplace.

Some point the finger at “issue fatigue.”

After an intense election and escalating concern over the war and the economy, audiences are perhaps too tired to see something downbeat.

Others say audiences are indeed continuing to embrace “issue” movies — but the definitions are changing.

“There really isn’t an arthouse audience anymore,” says a studio exec. “There is an adult audience, where you are playing to people over 30. That’s a big audience, but they only choose one movie a week.”

In many cases, studio films are getting better notices than their indie counterparts.

As a result, auds that usually patronize specialty pics are heading to MGM-Sony’s “Casino Royale” and Warner Bros.’ “The Departed,” action movies that are aimed at audiences more sophisticated than young teens.

“Borat” has emerged as not just another “Jackass” pic, but rather the work of a performance artist who has been embraced by the intelligentsia.

Award noms could boost some pictures.

“Babel” and “Bobby” had a tough time crossing over widely, but Golden Globes noms in the drama category may jumpstart their box office.

Ironically, execs sometimes secretly hope that their underperforming films don’t get awards attention. Spending campaign money on a pic that’s already been a financial drain can add insult to injury.

“That’s called the ‘Tumbleweeds’ syndrome,” says one exec, referring to the 1999 Fine Line fall release that made only $1.2 million but nailed an actress Oscar nom for star Janet McTeer.

Other current releases, including “Volver” and New Line’s “Little Children,” are holding their limited runs as they wait to see how award season shakes out. That could turn out to be a savvy plan, as both pics were showered with Globe noms.

After a modest platform release, Fox Searchlight has waited to relaunch “The Last King of Scotland,” pinning its hopes on awards attention for Forest Whitaker, who is emerging a crix’ kudos fave and also nailed a Globe nom.

But it remains to be seen whether statuettes will rescue some of these pics, or if audiences simply are not in the mood.

A year ago, Focus Features saw gratifying success with its brainy Third World thriller “The Constant Gardener.”

This year, Focus’ “Hollywoodland” and “Catch a Fire” failed to duplicate that film’s prestige and success, leaving the studio that broke “Brokeback” largely out of the Oscar picture. Ben Affleck did grab a Golden Globe nom as supporting actor for “Hollywoodland.”

The 2005 biopic “Capote” performed well for Sony Pictures Classics; this year’s similarly themed “Infamous” from Warner Independent got lost in the shuffle.

“There’s a lot of roadkill out there,” says one distribution exec. “You have to look at the marketplace in general and ask what’s fixing everyone’s attention. What’s the public saying? ‘I don’t like these movies.’ ”

“People are not interested in exposing themselves to these (serious) stories,” says one distribution head. “Are people in the mood to be pensive? It didn’t happen this fall. We’re back to the same political issues.”

Other pics that seem at sea are Sony’s “Marie Antoinette,” which bowed in 859 engagements and never expanded further, and the studio’s “Running With Scissors.”

So if moviegoers are more in the mood for some razzle-dazzle than downers, the next pic that could spell trouble for the specialty sector is “Dreamgirls,” which opens this week: It’s another awards contender with arty underpinnings covered in glitter.