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Can Grown-Up Films Encroach on Summer’s Tentpole Tyranny?

From Whedon to Woody, serious filmmakers stake their place amid the blockbusters

Is Joss Whedon pushing his luck?

The idiosyncratic filmmaker who owned the box office last summer with “The Avengers” decided as his follow-up to shoot a contemporary, low-budget black and white version of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” — shot in 12 days at his Santa Monica house. Even more surprising, he went along with distributor Roadside Attractions’ decision to release it on June 7.

Whedon has Hollywood street smarts, so doesn’t he know that grown-up movies (especially Shakespeare) aren’t released in summer? That’s the time of year when Whedon’s comicbook heroes run rampant at the megaplexes and serious filmgoers feel excluded from the party.

Whedon’s a cocky guy, but most of his contemporaries aren’t. A glimpse of the Cannes schedule underscores the point: Alexander Payne’s new film, “Nebraska,” is playing at the festival but Paramount is holding its release until the fall Oscar corridor. Same for CBS Films’ release of the Coen brothers film “Inside Llewyn Davis” — another Cannes entry that’s being held until November.

The message: Distributors are willing to take their chances with the grumpy critical gallery at Cannes but aren’t willing to let grown-up filmgoers in the U.S. judge their films during summer primetime. (There are exceptions: “The Great Gatsby,” which is an art movie of sorts, will bow wide in the U.S. on May 10 before opening Cannes on May 15 — Warner Bros. is hungry for overseas exposure for this very American and very stylized Baz Luhrmann movie.)

(“Much Ado About Nothing,” pictured above, and “Blue Jasmine,”
pictured up top, will cultivate adults looking for blockbuster alternatives.

Filmgoers and exhibitors alike have long complained about the paucity of quality pictures for summer. Data released recently by the MPAA confirms the obvious trends: The teen filmgoing audience is shrinking while the 40-plus market continues to expand.

So is there any chance that specialty films may become a year-round business? There are glimmers of hope here and there.

Sony Pictures Classics two years ago took a shot with Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” releasing it on May 20. This adventure in counterprogramming was a major success, and the company is trying it again this summer with “Blue Jasmine,” Woody’s latest, which stars Cate Blanchett and Alec Baldwin and opens July 20.

Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, the savvy distributors who have long piloted Sony Classics, also are releasing “Before Midnight,” the latest installment in the romantic Ethan Hawke-Julie Delpy mini franchise, on Memorial Day weekend, and “I’m So Excited,” from Pedro Almodovar, will come out June 13, opening the Los Angeles Film Festival. These films will thus avoid the awards-season logjam of late fall. Specialty film distributors were stung last fall when the majors released grownup films like “Lincoln” and “Zero Dark Thirty” late in the year, overshadowing the indie awards candidates.

All told, Sony Classics will release five films this summer. Focus will release three, starting with the Alex Gibney documentary titled “We Steal Secrets,” about Julian Assange. Fox Searchlight’s main primetime entry will be “The Way, Way Back,” with Steve Carell.

“Specialized audiences don’t want just to see great movies during awards season,” James Schamus, chairman of Focus, points out, citing the success last year of “Moonrise Kingdom,” which Focus released May 25 to an eventual return north of $45 million.

As for “Much Ado About Nothing,” Whedon calls it “the sexiest thing I’ve ever done” — which means he doesn’t find Captain America that sexy.

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