Where Have All the Movies for Grown-Ups Gone?


Jon Hamm in Beirut


It’s a great time to go to the movies – if you’re a 12-year-old.

Look at the local marquees, and what titles keep springing up? “Ready Player One” and “A Wrinkle in Time,” “Pacific Rim Uprising” and “Sherlock Gnomes.” Definitely some diverting entertainment in there, but nothing you probably want to discuss over drinks afterward (or even think about while you’re watching).

Look at the year’s box-office so far, and you see a lot of the same. The top-ten successes begin with “Black Panther” and end with “Tomb Raider,” with other pictures like “The Maze Runner: The Death Core” and “Insidious: The Final Key” scattered in between. Not much adult material there (and by “adult,” I don’t mean the soft-core soap opera “Fifty Shades Freed,” currently in third place.)

Maybe our multiplexes should post a new sign: No one over 18 admitted.

I’m not getting stuffy or snobbish here. I would have loved a lot of these movies too, when I was 12 years old. In fact, the 12-year-old in me still likes a few of them. I had a good enough time with the nostalgia and special-effects eye candy of “Ready Player One.” I genuinely thought “Black Panther” was smart and unusual and terrific (although in ways that had nothing to do with sci-fi or superheroes).

Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren in Leisure Seekers

But where are the movies for the adults in the audience?

You know, those folks who, while they can still rally their inner geek for a “Star Wars” spin-off or James Bond reboot, would also like to see a film which doesn’t include light sabers or car crashes? Who actually prefer comedies that don’t think it’s obligatory to have a scene of someone vomiting? Who want a romantic drama where the question isn’t so much how-do-you-make-love-happen as how-do-you-make-love-last?

Maybe you’re even one of them. I know I am – and so are a lot of other movie fans.

In fact, audiences over 40 make up 40% of the moviegoers in this country — and it’s actually the only demographic segment that’s growing. They have more disposable income, and a wide range of interests. And – as a generation that grew up before smartphones, Facebook and the internet – they’re used to looking to movies for art and entertainment. They want to go out to a theater.

So why are the studios still aiming almost everything at the 24-and-way-under crowd?

There are two big reasons.

The first is that, frankly, as far as the moguls are concerned, grownups are too smart for the studios’ own good. A genuinely discriminating audience, they like to know a little something about a picture before they buy their tickets. They don’t automatically rush out to the latest installment in the hottest franchise; even if they are interested, they don’t feel a need to be there at the very first showing, just so they can have bragging rights on Twitter. They think for themselves, and decide at their leisure.

Death of Stalin

Studios hate that.

The second reason is that, when adults do go to a new movie – generally, a few weeks after it’s opened — they see it once. They don’t go back the next weekend with their friends, just to see it again. And they certainly don’t go online and buy up all the tie-in merchandizing – the posters, the T-shirts, the music, the action figures. (Not that most of the movies they go to have action figures.) They’re one-and-done. Teenagers, on the other hand, provide a nearly constant revenue stream.

Studios love that.

And so producers hunt for easily promotable, expandable franchises, in which there’s no end to the number of sequels, spin-offs and stand-alones (really, Marvel has made me hate the word “universe”). And then the lowest-common-denominator gets lowered even further so that the films can be exported to Hollywood’s real profit center, the foreign market. (In-demand: Action films, which don’t require a lot of subtitles. Pictures non grata: Anything controversial that might upset political or religious censors.)

The good news is, that’s left a niche. And some people – mostly indie filmmakers and small-scale distributors – are filling it.

Look a little harder – OK, sometimes very hard – and you can find other kinds of movies, made for other kinds of audiences. Still in New Jersey theaters is “The Leisure Seeker,” a sad but terrifically acted drama with Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren as a long-time couple facing a new crisis. And “The Death of Stalin,” a new film from Armando Iannucci, the creator of “Veep” and a satirist skilled at both surprisingly fresh casting (Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev?) and hilariously profane dialogue.

There’s also the searing “Chappaquiddick,” a dramatic feature about Ted Kennedy and the signature scandal in his life; it’s a genuinely adult film, meaning it takes a long, uncomfortable look at complex events without looking for easy excuses. Or there’s the upcoming “Beirut,” which stars Jon Hamm in an espionage thriller which doesn’t have any high-tech gadgets or sexy spies in slinky dresses, but does offer a cynical, and perhaps realistic, take on the way American foreign policy honestly works.

They’re not the sort of movies that any 12-year-old is going to rush out to see, and they all have way too much dialogue (and too little action) to do well in most foreign markets. But they may hit the spot for audiences looking for grown-up entertainment.

The problem is that, unlike the studios’ superhero movies and sci-fi blockbusters, they don’t arrive with major marketing campaigns. You won’t see giant posters for them in the subways, or endless TV broadcasts of their trailers. Normally they’re the kind of movies that depend on critics to beat the drum a bit, and let readers know they’re out there. But with newspapers left and right cutting their arts coverage, where are you going to find that?

Consider this a good place to start.