At least James Cameron can smile. Already the highest grossing film of the past 12 months in the US, having eclipsed the $402m haul of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, last week Avatar crossed the $1bn mark for box-office receipts in foreign (non-American) territories. His 3D spectacular is now edging ever closer to breaking the all-time global box-office record of $1.84bn, set of course by Cameron's own 1997 film Titanic. But if the public's passion for Pandora shows that the Hollywood blockbuster remains in fine fettle, it rather masks a more concerning malaise currently afflicting the studio system: the decline of adult drama.
While some might claim that this has been an ongoing problem since Jaws began the era of the blockbuster, it's become an increasingly concerning trend. "It's the worst time," says John Hillcoat, whose adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic survival story, The Road, has just been released to positive reviews. "Sorry to be melodramatic, but it really is. To make a film now is to make a film at the lowest point since cinema began. The studios are in such a self-defeating spiral. They are literally saying 'franchise or comedy' and nothing else." For a director like Hillcoat, whose stock-in-trade is adult drama – whether it be the prison-set Ghosts... of the Civil Dead or his McCarthy-influenced 19th-century Western The Proposition – this is bad news.
By way of example, Hillcoat explains that he has a script written by the musician Nick Cave, who previously penned The Proposition, that he's been trying to get off the ground. Adapted from the book The Wettest County in the World, it's a story of rural Prohibition-era gangsters with an attached cast including Shia LaBeouf, Amy Adams and Scarlett Johansson. "It's just great," he says. "But it's not a comedy and it's not a franchise, so it can't get made. No-one will touch it." Which might seem a little short sighted, given that Michael Mann's Depression-set John Dillinger tale, Public Enemies, took over $200m around the world.
It seems that in these recession-hit times the studios are playing it safe. Last October, the British director of Atonement, Joe Wright, saw his planned adaptation of Alex von Tunzelmann's book Indian Summer shelved. Dealing with the last days of Britain's colonial rule of India, it was set to star Hugh Grant and Cate Blanchett, who had been cast as Edna Mountbatten, wife of Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy of the British Indian Empire. But Universal Studios balked at the budget, believed to be somewhere between $30m and $40m. Little wonder that Variety called the decision "a mark of how challenging the environment for upscale, adult-oriented drama has become".
Admittedly, a glance at the January release schedules rather hides this problem. Traditionally the time of year when quality Oscar hopefuls are released, alongside The Road, films like Jim Sheridan's remake of Danish sibling story Brothers and Scott Hicks' fatherhood melodrama, The Boys Are Back, are set for the cinemas. But according to Hicks, whose film stars Clive Owen as a British sports journalist forced to look after his two sons when his wife dies, such films are becoming "almost impossible to finance" in the economic downturn. "I think we probably got in on the last round of that, as it were [before the recession hit]."
Indeed, the days of getting a film made like Shine, Hicks' 1996 bio of pianist David Helfgott, seem long gone. While he notes that "a lot of ready cash has dried up" due to the recession, he doesn't merely attribute this change in focus to the economy. Rather, he blames the studios for turning their backs on films that don't automatically generate huge profits, preferring to seek out movies with in-built, ready-made audiences. "I think they've got a lot to answer for," he says. "They've conditioned their audience to accept a certain product. I think it's ridiculous to say that there's no audience for adult drama. It's just whether they can be bothered to find it, or to play to it."
Sheridan concurs with Hicks' sentiments. While Brothers, which stars Tobey Maguire as a US soldier captured on duty in Afghanistan, might be considered a difficult property to market, he has struggled for years to kickstart what, on the face of it, looks a no-brainer – a remake of the classic BBC series I, Claudius. "I brought I, Claudius around to every film company in the world, including the ones here [in the UK] and nobody was interested in it," he explains. "So I lost a little bit of my faith in the film companies. It was very odd. It was always a mystery to me why I couldn't get it off the ground."
While that situation did change, with various companies ultimately entering into a bidding war for the project, one suspects that might just be because I, Claudius is simply seen as a marketable property that can be easily sold to audiences already familiar with the TV show (à la Brideshead Revisited). The problem, it seems, is studios focusing on titles that they estimate will deliver huge payouts. Brothers, for example, took a healthy $28m in the US, just eclipsing its budget. But the fact that it will generate a small profit is of little interest to companies, when resources can be directed towards making cash cow films that have franchise potential.
Even a glance at this year's Golden Globe nominations shows just how the perception of the genre has changed. In the Best Motion Picture – Drama category, alongside Cameron's special effects bonanza and eventual winner, Avatar, were Quentin Tarantino's war fantasy Inglourious Basterds and Jason Reitman's comical Up in the Air. Only Lee Daniels' harrowing Precious and Kathryn Bigelow's combat movie The Hurt Locker come close to what might be considered "adult drama". Compare the shortlist to the previous year, which boasted the likes of The Reader, Frost/Nixon and Revolutionary Road, and suddenly it seems rather lightweight.
So where does that leave the directors of such fare? Wright has since gone on to start prepping Hanna, a story about a "14-year-old Eastern European girl who has been raised by her father to be a cold-blooded killing machine", which is said to resemble La Femme Nikita and the Bourne trilogy. A lurid-sounding slice of pulp fiction, it seems miles from Indian Summer. Even Hicks admits he's thought of heading in that direction. "I had an interesting conversation once about the Bond franchise. If Michael Apted can do it, I reckon I could!" Indeed, it was recently announced that Sam Mendes may be in the running to direct Bond 23.
Not all remain disenchanted, however. Tilda Swinton, who will next be seen in the stunning Italian-language drama I Am Love, a film she produced, is optimistic that there will always be film-makers ready to serve the market for upscale films. "I think there's never a lack of visionaries. There's never a lack of film-makers. And the most important thing to remember is that there will always be the films. The films always get made. Now even more. If you think of Paranormal Activity, the fact that films can be made so cheaply [is encouraging]... We just mustn't be dispirited. The focus must now be on distribution."
The way she sees it, distributors need to be more "kamikaze" when it comes to programming releases.
"Cinema audiences are up. People talk about this capitalistic crisis for funding in films, and the studios are all hanging their heads... but cinema audiences are up. So what we have to do is just give them more. Which doesn't mean fewer films in the same old multiplexes. But just spread it out. Give them the confidence of their expanding taste. Encourage them to see films that they wouldn't normally see. I think the distribution is really key in all of this. We need more smaller cinemas and we need to draw on a hundred years of cinema history to really encourage people to expand their taste."
Swinton has certainly done her part: not only producing the likes of I Am Love, but also literally bringing cinema to the masses. Last August, she helped organise a posse of volunteers who dragged a 37-tonne mobile cinema screen through remote regions of the Scottish Highlands. "Once again – surprise, surprise – people who did not go to film school or have any particular cinematic literary history are happy and eager and hungry for Robert Bresson and Werner Herzog and Preston Sturges. And they chose to come and see these films rather than go and see G-Force at the multiplex in Inverness. But it was nothing new to us. It was just further proof that people want cinema and they're up for it."
It certainly makes a mockery of Hicks' theory that audiences have been conditioned to just watching Hollywood spectacle. Yet it's going to require such dedication on a regular basis. If not, studios will be further encouraged to direct resources towards the "franchise or comedy" as we find ourselves slipping further away than ever from the 1970s era in Hollywood when the likes of The Godfather and Taxi Driver were being produced and turning a profit. Indeed, while James Cameron claims Avatar will change movies forever, it would be a pity if this meant relegating adult drama to the cinema of yesteryear.
The Road is on general release. Brothers and The Boys Are Back open on 22 January. I Am Love is released on 9 April