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Is the death of movies for grown-ups greatly exaggerated? This year's best picture Oscar race says yes

On Sunday night, nine mostly midbudget films with grown-up themes —  loss, war, discrimination, artistic struggle —  will compete for best picture at the 89th Academy Awards. That may sound like business as usual for an awards show that traditionally favors critically acclaimed dramas, but this isn’t: Nearly all of them have performed well beyond expectations at the box office.

Manchester by the Sea” is one of them. An intimate, emotionally wrenching indie about a man coping with unimaginable grief might make sense as an Oscar nominee (it’s up for six awards, including best picture), but it isn’t necessarily the kind of movie you’d expect to do well — or perhaps even reach theaters — outside the orbit of a major city. 

So when someone sent “Manchester” director Kenneth Lonergan a photo of a marquee in Missoula, Mont., emblazoned with the film’s title, he was elated.

“There are all these smaller towns where it is playing and doing well,” Lonergan said of the film, which has earned more than $46 million domestically. “It’s such a thrill.”

And something of a surprise.

For years the conventional wisdom in the executive suites of Hollywood has been that movies need to go big or go tiny. Nonfranchise films with adult appeal and midrange budgets, the kind that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences holds in such high esteem, seemed so near extinction that it was feared even the Oscars couldn’t save them.

Indeed, after only one of the five 2008 competitors had broken $100 million at the domestic box office, the academy expanded the best picture category to as many as 10 films, in the hopes of accommodating at least a couple of blockbusters that, in turn, might make the race more broadly relevant (and boost the ratings for the annual telecast).  

And for years, that’s what happened: One or two juggernauts joined underperforming critics’ darlings, which still often won — in 2010 “The Hurt Locker” beat out “The Blind Side” and “Avatar” — while audience and academy members thought wistfully of the days of “Forrest Gump” and “The Silence of the Lambs.”

This year there is no “Forrest Gump” among the best picture nominees, all of which cost between $5 million and $50 million. But there’s also no “The Hurt Locker,” which grossed just $17 million domestically in 2009, the lowest tally ever for a best picture winner. 

This year’s front-runner, the buoyant musical “La La Land” — a modern twist on an antique genre many in Hollywood had all but given up for dead — has proven a veritable box office bonanza, dancing its way to more than $340 million worldwide to date, outperforming far costlier recent major studio movies such as “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” “Ghostbusters” and “Passengers.”

“Hidden Figures,” the real-life story of a handful of African American women who played a key role in the space race, has taken in more than $144 million domestically. Mel Gibson’s brutally violent World War II film “Hacksaw Ridge” has earned over $66 million. “Fences,” a searing period drama based on August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, has pulled in more than $55 million.  

As “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle sees it, the success of this crop of nominees gives the lie to the notion that the adult-oriented movie is rapidly becoming a dinosaur. Whether the Hollywood studios receive that message, however, is another question.

“Once Hollywood gets set on a certain method, all the logic goes to justify that, and any movie outside that that has any kind of life, they dismiss as an anomaly,” Chazelle said. “No matter how well they do, they say, ‘Oh, you can’t use that as a comp for anything.’ There’s this ghettoization.”

Granted, this year there are no blockbusters among the best picture nominees on the scale of 2015’s “The Martian,” which took in $630 million globally, or 2014’s “American Sniper,” which earned $547 million. And a few remain fairly niche:  The poetic coming-of-age drama “Moonlight” and the gritty crime thriller “Hell or High Water” have taken in $21 million and $27 million, respectively.

Still, even those smaller hauls should bring the films’ financial backers significant profits. “Hell or High Water” cost $12 million to produce, while the budget for “Moonlight” came in under $5 million.

The bottom line, Lonergan says, is that in the film industry’s rush to cater to younger moviegoers with comic-book movies and other big-budget spectacles, it is neglecting a large segment of the potential audience. 

“Just anecdotally, my parents and their generation and my older siblings’ generation —  they would go to movies if there were movies for them to go to,” he said. “I think that’s true all over the country.”

The studios’ collective  retreat from adult-oriented dramatic fare — which tends to perform less well internationally and on home video than branded tentpole movies — has made room for new industry players.

“Moonlight,” nominated for eight Oscars, was financed and distributed by New York-based A24, which was founded in 2012. “Manchester by the Sea” was picked up at last year’s Sundance Film Festival by Amazon Studios, making it the first best picture nod for a streaming service.

“The studios have by and large said, ‘If it’s a serious, dramatic film and it’s not an Oscar movie, we don’t want to be involved with it,’ ” said Howard Cohen, co-president of Roadside Attractions, which has handled theatrical distribution of “Manchester by the Sea.” “I don’t think it’s because they are stupid or craven or hate serious films. Those movies have proven hard to make money on. But their loss is our gain. I think there is still a healthy market for dramatic films.”

“Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins says these newcomers have taken bigger risks and given movies like his more aggressive pushes than they otherwise might have received.

“Before there were all these new players, you would assume off the jump that [smaller markets] would just get the movie on DVD,” Jenkins said. “But they were like, ‘No, we’re going to put it up.’ ”

In the end, out of the nine best picture nominees, only three — “Fences,” “Hidden Figures” and the cerebral sci-fi hit “Arrival,” which has earned nearly $200 million worldwide — were distributed by major studios. 

“These new players, like Amazon and A24, are shaking things up a little bit,” Chazelle said. “Anything that makes the traditional Hollywood studio model antsy or feel a little threatened, I think it opens up opportunities on the periphery.”

And sometimes rejecting the whole popcorn versus statuary dichotomy results in both. 20th Century Fox’s hopes for “Hidden Figures” were initially somewhat restrained, both in terms of box office success and awards potential. But an early screening for African American moviegoers met with  such enthusiasm that the studio decided to see how the movie played with a crowd in the middle of the country.

“It scored just as high with the nontarget audience, and we knew the movie was colorblind,” said Chris Aronson, Fox’s president of domestic distribution. “We decided to treat it as a commercial film first, because we didn't want to be presumptuous enough to say, ‘Hey, everybody, this is an awards film.”

“Hidden Figures” opened over Christmas weekend and expanded two weeks later to more than 2,000 theaters. The film held the top spot at the box office for two consecutive weekends and remained in the top five for more than a month, capturing a wide audience that far exceeded industry expectations for a period film centered on African American women.

Lonergan says he hopes that the studios learn from this year to shake off some of their long-held — and too often unexamined — assumptions about what does and doesn’t work at the box office.

“They say, ‘We’re just being businesspeople,’ but it’s completely untrue,” he said. “It’s shamanistic thinking disguised as hardfisted accounting. No one knows why movies sell. No one knows what makes them good. But there is a huge population whose jobs are to pretend they know what makes them sell and pretend they know what makes them good.”

He laughed. “Whereas we [filmmakers] don’t know what makes movies sell or what makes them good — but we know that we don’t know.” 

josh.rottenberg@latimes.com

Twitter: @joshrottenberg

amy.kaufman@latimes.com

Twitter: @AmyKinLA

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A previous version of this story stated that only one 2008 best picture nominee broke $100,000 at the box office. Only one nominee broke $100 million at the domestic box office.
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