June 20, 2008 / 12:09 AM / 10 years ago

Hollywood studios in a retro mood

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - For those ready to move past the endless stream of dark dramas from fall 2007, get ready for a new barrage -- from the 1960s, the 1940s and the 1780s.

Studios are preparing to unleash a hailstorm of period movies -- in broad terms, films set in an era other than the current -- in the fall, at times turning the multiplex circa 2008 into a veritable cinematic museum.

The films range from large studio productions (Clint Eastwood’s 1920s missing-child drama “Changeling” and Baz Luhrmann’s World War II epic “Australia”) to specialty releases (the mid-century Southern tale “The Secret Life of Bees” and the 1960s Catholic-school drama “Doubt”).

They veer from costume dramas (the 18th century Keira Knightley quill-and-wig extravaganza “The Duchess”) to political sagas (Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon”) to 1950s family dramas (the Sam Mendes-Leonardo DiCaprio collaboration “Revolutionary Road”) to biopics (Gus Van Sant’s “Milk”) to yet more WWII throwbacks (Ed Zwick’s “Defiance,” Mikael Hafstrom’s “Shanghai” and Spike Lee’s “Miracle at St. Anna”).

“It seems like Hollywood is merging with the History Channel,” media critic Robert Thompson noted wryly.

Studios have a long tradition of producing movies set in previous eras, from epics like “Ben-Hur” to intimate stories like “The Ice Storm.” But the latest wave of period movies is notable for several reasons.

These movies are coming all at once -- scores of pictures crammed into a period of just 10 or 12 weeks. The stakes and expectations for these movies also are higher because the overall number of fall specialty releases is expected to be down by as much as 25 percent from the nearly 70 titles released last year. And, maybe most critical, these period films are being released at a moment when questions linger from last season about whether the audience can find enough to identify with in fall releases.

That combination is enough to make some executives nervous. “It’s a lot of period movies, and it’s going to be a question of who’ll be able to connect,” said one high-ranking arthouse-studio executive releasing a period film.

Nonetheless, development executives point to reasons why historical is suddenly fashionable despite the risks.

Cast member Angelina Jolie attends a news conference for the film "The Exchange" by U.S. director Clint Eastwood at the 61st Cannes Film Festival May 20, 2008. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

In a time when summer releases have trumped fall movies on spectacle, they say, it’s a chance for films to chisel out a new niche. Boxoffice Mojo president Brandon Gray suggests that period pictures are in effect the fall’s answer to the summer tentpole.

“A movie set in period can be a selling point because it transports you to another world without being a fantasy or relying on big special effects,” he said.

Period movies can also allow a story to be told in ways that contemporary-set movies can’t tell them. “In a period movie you can strip out modern American irony and ambiguity and get away with it,” Thompson said. “A contemporary movie that has absolutes would seems old-fashioned. But if you set it during a previous time, you can make it credible.”

Angelina Jolie and Jeffrey Donovan in a scene from "The Changeling". REUTERS/Universal Pictures/Handout

Last year, such movies as “Michael Clayton,” “Rendition” and “In the Valley of Elah” took on current issues through a contemporary lens. This crop looks at equally large themes -- the corruption of power (“Changeling”), the innocent victims of war (“Australia,” “St. Anna,” “Defiance”) and the slipperiness of truth (“Doubt,” “Frost/Nixon”) -- but uses the distancing mechanism of period.

But for all the advantages, will consumers bite on stories that often take place before many of them were born? Executives acknowledge that these movies come with challenges.

“The situations won’t be as relatable, so you need to find something relatable that transcends the era,” said Fox co-president of theatrical marketing Pam Levine, whose company will try to turn “Australia” -- in which Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman cross the Australian outback during a pre-WWII Japanese bombing raid -- into a wide play.

Marketing veteran Terry Press, who worked on such period films as “Gladiator” and “Seabiscuit,” also sees a fine line. “You don’t want to confuse period with old-fashioned (in your marketing). That’s the quickest way to lose a big part of the audience.”

For a “Gladiator” spot, DreamWorks cut footage from the film with NFL highlights to give it a modern feel. Miramax, which undertook a similar promotion for “Gangs of New York” under the Weinsteins six years ago, will try to bridge the historical and modern in “Brideshead Revisited,” the class-themed WWII movie based on the Evelyn Waugh novel. “We want to show people that the issues of class and being an outsider are still very relatable today,” Miramax marketing chief Jason Cassidy said.

No matter how the material gets played, though, there might be a commercial ceiling. One development executive points out that “American audiences like occasional period movies, but they do want them every weekend?”

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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