By Ronald Grover
Is Hollywood finally growing up? For months, studio execs have been wringing their hands about the ailing box office. Ask the Spago crowd what's wrong with movies, and they'll come up with more excuses than Wolfgang has pizzas: Action flicks aren't selling, folks are staying home watching DVDs or TiVoed episodes of Desperate Housewives.
But Hollywood has simply been aiming too low -- and maybe too young -- for an audience that has grown up faster than the suits expected.
APPEALING TO NO ONE.
Need proof? Just look at the surprise hit of this year: Wedding Crashers, a comedy that has nearly as much sex as it has guffaws -- and has sailed past $144 million in its first four weeks in theaters.
Wedding Crashers is a rarity in Hollywood -- an R-rated comedy squarely aimed at the 17-and-older audience. Indeed, the film, starring Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, is refreshing because unlike most movies, it hasn't been homogenized to the point of blandness.
Too many current Hollywood movies have a little bit of this and a splash of that, with the goal of making a film that can appeal to everyone. Yet very often these flicks appeal to just about no one.
This year's Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous had it all -- some comedy, action, even a little love interest. All it lacked was originality. The film grossed $48 million, about half of what the first Miss Congeniality did five years ago.
That approach is at the heart of Hollywood's problem. As budgets have ballooned, movies have gotten evermore derivative. Witness cookie-cutter jobs like Sony's (SNE ) Top Gun knockoff, Stealth -- or any movie derived from a feeble TV show of yesteryear (see BW Online, 6/22/05, "Hollywood Needs to Yell, 'Cut!'").
So, when The Island looks like any other futuristic science-fiction flick ever made, or Kingdom of Heaven is the fourth sword-swinging epic in a year, it's no surprise that folks head for the closest Blockbuster (BBI ).
"What Hollywood needs is more films directed at adults," New Yorker critic David Denby told me a while ago. "And more films that stand out from the crowd."
He's right. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, the fastest growing group of folks going to the movies is over the age of 40. And there are nearly as many folks 50 and older buying tickets as those 24 and under.
When Fox Searchlight's (NWS ) R-rated Sideways became last year's surprise hit, garnering $71 million at the box office -- not bad, given it was made for a paltry $16 million -- a lot of studio suits apparently sat up and took notice.
THE LURE OF RAUNCH.
If Fox Searchlight could do that kind of business with a low-budget comedy starring relative unknowns, New Line no doubt figured it could do even better with a couple of known stars like Wilson and Vaughn and a ton of marketing.
"No matter what folks may say, they like raunchy films and get a vicarious thrill out of nudity," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracking concern Exhibitor Relations Co.
Now, we'll get a chance to see if R-rated comedies really can revive the ailing box office. Two are opening in the next couple of weeks: Deuce Bigelow: European Gigolo, with Rob Schneider reprising his smarmy title role, and Universal's The 40-Year Old Virgin, starring the stuttering Steve Carell as a -- well, you know.
The first Deuce Bigelow grossed $65 million five years back, and The 40-Year Old Virgin was written by the same guy who gave us Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, a PG-13 flick that grossed $84 million last summer.
Now, it's unlikely either will have the staying power and punch of Wedding Crashers, but if Dergarabedian is right, and sex sells, they've both got a shot. (Indeed, Dergarabedian, who has screened Virgin, says it's quirky but may hit the bullseye.)
To be sure, an R-rated film comes with its own set of problems. For instance, it can't be marketed on most TV channels before 10 p.m., and the trailers can't be shown before flicks aimed at younger audiences. And the potential audiences for PG-13 is larger, since there are fewer restrictions on who can attend, and movies with teen appeal tend to draw repeat viewers.
NO LONGER TEENYBOPPERS.
Wedding Crashers will need some hefty weekends to match the top-rated PG flicks of all time: Last year's Meet the Fockers, which grossed $279 million, according to Exhibitor Relations, or the $243 million generated by Bruce Almighty in 2003. But it could easily surpass the $176 million that was run up by the 1998 There's Something About Mary and its R-rated hair-gel scene.
Moviegoers want something new and unexpected, especially those who are no longer teenyboppers. And help for those folks may be on the way: Fox has two R-rated comedies scheduled, Mike Judge's Idiocracy and another Rob Schneider flick, Grandma's Boy.
O.K., maybe Schneider isn't everyone's cup of tea, but there have to be a few more Wedding Crashers sitting on script readers' desks. Maybe the moguls ought to read a few more of those works and take a pass on the next Alexander the Great knockoff or movie version of Leave It to Beaver.
Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Power Lunch column, only on BusinessWeek Online
Edited by Patricia O'Connell