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Don’t Write Off the Adult Drama

Let’s not write off the adult action drama quite so fast. There’s deep thinking going on around town in the wake of the weak performance of “State of Play,” Universal’s grown-up thriller set in Washington. The film has taken in a mere $16 million since opening last weekend — despite a star-studded cast led by Russell […]

Let’s not write off the adult action drama quite so fast.
 
There’s deep thinking going on around town in the wake of the weak performance of “State of Play,” Universal’s grown-up thriller set in Washington. The film has taken in a mere $16 million since opening last weekend — despite a star-studded cast led by Russell Crowe and the pedigree of having been an extremely popular British series that got a good amount of buzz when it played on BBC America.
 
And with “The Soloist” as competition this weekend — not two adult movies to choose from in a single weekend! — there is reason to believe the movie won’t pick up much more business in the coming weeks.
 
The easy conclusion is that adult dramas don’t work.
 
John Horn, for example, wrote as much in a piece in the L.A. Times ahead of Crowe’s opening: “While some of "State of Play’s" likely lackluster performance will be blamed on Crowe, the 45-year-old Australian — who is overweight and disheveled in the film’s lead role as an investigative newspaper reporter — is hardly the sole issue. Equally problematic is ‘State of Play’s’ genre: the highbrow adult drama, which is quickly becoming a big-studio relic.”
 
Another easy conclusion is that audiences don’t want to see their movie stars scruffy and fat. And that they won’t rush out to see stories that look dour and not particularly original.
 
While I can attest to the latter, I take issue with the first conclusion — that bit about the defunct nature of the “highbrow adult drama.” And in Hollywood, such conclusions have a way of becoming self-fulfilling.
 
But the evidence is not in.
 
This spring, another adult action drama seems to have captured the imagination of moviegoers of all ages.
 
“Taken,” a kidnap thriller with no real movie stars — unless you count Liam Neeson — an obscure French director in Pierre Morel and a French producer in Luc Besson, has taken in $142 million for distributor Fox in this country in 12 weeks in release.
 
Week after week this film has surprised box-office prognosticators and continued to rake in millions.
 
How does that make any sense?
 
Because the film has a tight, quickly grasp-able plot — "Dad out to save kidnapped daughter in nasty world’" — that was sharply crafted in the trailers that ran on TV. Because the action was cool and engaging, and not a mass of expensive, high-tech explosions.
 
And it was all done for a price, unlike “State of Play,” which cost something around $80 million, according to my information.
 
Another star-studded adult thriller, “Body of Lies,” with Crowe and Leo and directed by Ridley Scott, was a preclude to the disappointing “State of Play.” It cost $70 million to shoot, millions more to market and took in just $39 million in the United States. (Thank God for foreign: another $76 mill.)
 
Then there’s “Seven Pounds,” the Will Smith adult drama that sputtered its way to $168 million internationally, but just $69 million domestically.
 
Still, “I don’t agree that the adult action drama is dead,” said Joe Pichirallo, a producer who is watching these developments with interest. (Pichirallo oversaw the Robin Williams drama, “One Hour Photo.”) “You have to analyze each movie to see if it has the elements to appeal to a wide audience. Just putting Russell Crowe in a movie and taking a title prominent in the United Kingdom is not enough to generate box office. You either have to push for amazing action, like the ‘Bourne Identity,’ or have a core story that is relatable.”
 
“’Taken’ is interesting,” he observed. “It shows you can have an action movie that works; the action is very modern and cool but relatively inexpensive to shoot. It doesn’t have massive explosions, but it was directed it in very cool way, so the action is appealing to younger people, and the core father-daughter story is appealing to adults.”
 
The head of one major studio (not Universal) said he hasn’t given up on adult action-dramas. But he admitted that he didn’t have any in production, or near production, either.
 
“I haven’t seen an adult action drama I really liked lately,” he said. “There’s a lot of good dramas on TV.”