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Are Americans ready for dramas again?

January 10, 2011 |  8:00 am

This weekend marked a milestone at the box office. No, not beause it was the first time someone paid to see Nicolas Cage as a witch-transporting Crusader. It was a weekend that saw the fourth independent drama in this season of serious movies pass the $30 million mark in domestic box office.

That may not seem like a hugely noteworthy event. But the last time it happened, the world was quite a different place.  It was January 2008, and a quartet of dramas  ("No Country for Old Men," "Atonement," "There Will Be Blood" and "The Great Debaters") all achieved that same watermark of mainstream success. A few months later, the financial crisis would take root and the world would go bleak, and Americans don't like to see dramas when the world goes bleak. The mark wouldn't be reached again until this weekend.

The movie that got this year's group over the hump, "The King's Speech," is continuing to show surprising strength even as it approaches two months in release. Two others of the fab four, "Black Swan" and "The Fighter," are doing even better, maintaining momentum as they push well into mainstream-hit territory. (The fourth, "Tyler Perry's "For Colored Girls," has all but finished its run at a decent but more niche place.)

All this doesn't count the blockbuster-level success of a pair of tough dramatic sells, "True Grit" and "The Social Network," which were made by studios but traffic in difficult subjects and embody an auteur spirit.

We've been hearing for years why audiences don't want to see dramas when the economy is bleak and wars are being fought -- namely, things are tough enough without us being reminded of more toughness at a movie theater. It's why studios have all but stopped making dramas, and even independent producers have spent the past few years talking a lot more about genre films. ("The Fighter" and "Black Swan' had to pare their budgets considerably even to get made as independents.)

And yet both of those movies have turned into bona fide hits, far outperforming supposedly more commercial bets like "Burlesque" and "Saw 3D." Is the no-drama rule finally being broken?

It would be easy to point to a (slightly) brighter financial picture as a reason we're embracing darker material. And there is a correlation between up economies and down movies (and vice versa), though it's not as direct as you'd think. During the Great Depression, for instance, people turned out in great numbers to see not uplifting movies but mob movies; in a time when people feel powerless, there's  gratification that comes from watching those taking matters into their own hands. Besides, given everything from a polarized electorate to the events in Tuscon over the weekend, it's not like these are days of rainbows and unicorns.

Some might say this year's movies are simply that strong, and strong movies can never be denied. But it's not as though "The Hurt Locker" -- another difficult movie, but one that few people came out to see last year -- was any slouch.

There may, however, be something more specific going on with these films. The three movies powering the trend deal with drug addiction, mental imbalance and the rise of Hitler. Not light subjects. But they also take place in worlds most of us don't have much  familiarity with. Unless you're an under-duress ballerina, a washed-up boxer or a speech-challenged duke, the content of these films won't hit very close to home. (Contrast these movies with "Rabbit Hole," a drama that deals with the far more relatable topic of death and family crisis; that film hasn't even reached $1 million in box office.)

There's also something weirdly triumphant about the dynamic trio -- all of them are, in their way, underdog stories, and give characters and audiences a happy ending  (yes, even "Swan," though exactly how happy is a matter of debate).

It may well be that, after a few years of saying no, we're finally ready for some drama. Or it may simply be that filmmakers have finally figured out a more palatable way to serve it to us.

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: 'The King's Speech.' Credit: The Weinstein Company