Actor Daniel Day-Lewis took a year to prepare for filming "Lincoln." (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
The big winners at this year's Academy Awards: adult moviegoers.
For years, the studios have fixated on young men in their teens and 20s, serving up big-budget popcorn movies populated with dazzling visual effects, comic book heroes and high-voltage action sequences. They've also made films geared to win awards, but oftentimes those pictures bring prestige without huge financial returns.
At the Oscars on Sunday night, however, six of the nine best picture nominees were hits that earned more than $100 million at the domestic box office. That could lead Hollywood to green-light more projects aimed at sophisticated audiences, filmmakers and studio executives say.
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"I think an adult audience is really rising up," said "Django Unchained" director Quentin Tarantino backstage at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood after winning the Oscar for best original screenplay. "That we're not [just] making movies for teenagers anymore is kind of cool."
Although there were no blockbusters along the lines of "Titanic" or "Avatar" among the Oscar-nominated films, the lesson from the just-concluded awards season seems to be that people ages 40 and older will go to the movies when they've got something to see.
This year's slate of best picture nominees included "Lincoln," "Les Miserables" and "Silver Linings Playbook," all of which resonated with older filmgoers. The winner, "Argo" was seen by many as a throwback to the kind of movies made in the 1970s, with director Ben Affleck citing "All the President's Men" as an inspiration.
"It does encourage the next opportunity to take that leap of faith," said Fox Filmed Entertainment Chairman Jim Gianopulos, discussing his studio's "Life of Pi," a financial and creative risk that won four Oscars and has grossed nearly $600 million worldwide. "When you have this kind of assembly of incredible filmmaking talent, it inspires you to take creative risks."
The success of many of the nominated films was driven by adults, an audience segment that has a long history of going to the movies.
Older moviegoers "are a very reliable segment of the audience that typically still has a fairly high incidence of moviegoing — it is part of their social fabric," said Doug Belgrad, president of Columbia Pictures, the Sony Pictures Entertainment unit that released "Zero Dark Thirty." That best picture nominee has grossed $91.6 million in the U.S.
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According to a study by the Motion Picture Assn. of America, in 2011 there were 3.1 million people ages 50 to 59 who saw a film once a month or more, up slightly from a year earlier. And although the study found that the number of frequent moviegoers ages 40 to 49 declined over the same period, those in the 25-to-39 age group rose significantly, to 9.7 million from 7.7 million a year earlier.
The roughly 76 million Americans born during the baby boom years of 1946 to 1964 — many of whom are now empty nesters with more leisure time — could be further tapped by studios to great gain. But not if they don't make the kind of movies that compel older adults to leave the comfort of their living rooms.
David Sadava and Dianne Sundby, friends in their early 60s, made sure they saw several of this year's nominated movies — including "Argo," "Lincoln" and "Zero Dark Thirty" — before Sunday's Oscar show.
"To have that many movies like that in one year is kind of remarkable," said Sadava, a biology researcher who lives in the San Fernando Valley and accompanied Sundby to a recent showing of the Steven Soderbergh thriller "Side Effects" at the Arclight Hollywood.
"The 'Die Hard' sequel, 'Twilight' movies — they are not my thing. We are too old," said Sadava, adding that compared with most years, the recent holiday season featured more films that piqued his interest.
Still, popcorn fare isn't going away. Every studio is betting on sequels in the next year, including "The Hangover III" from Warner Bros., Universal Pictures' "Fast & Furious 6," and "Iron Man 3" from Walt Disney Co. The strategy makes sense: Eight of the top 10 grossing films in the U.S. in 2012 were franchises.
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"We will always be mired in sequels and remakes," said film marketing veteran Russell Schwartz. "Studio folks are still adhering to the mantra of taking care of what their corporate parents want."