Will economy make crowds shun gloomy Oscar flicks?

In this image released by Focus Features, Sean Penn is shown as Harvey Milk, center, in a scene from Milk. Phil Bray, The Associated Press


In this image released by Focus Features, Sean Penn is shown as Harvey Milk, center, in a scene from “Milk.” Phil Bray, The Associated Press

By David Germain

LOS ANGELES – Not long before he’s assassinated, Sean Penn’s Harvey Milk proclaims his key precept for social change: “You gotta give ’em hope.”

Hope is often lacking in Academy Awards contenders such as “Milk,” films that tend toward bleak, serious subjects that scream “Oscar” but can spell box-office poison to audiences looking for something light and relaxing even in the best of times.

With gloom and doom in the real-world economy, will moviegoers be even more reluctant to catch dark, dreary Oscar heavyweights and head instead for the happy place that a “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” can take them?

“In this atmosphere, what the country does want to see isn’t the stuff that they normally nominate for Oscars,” said John Wilson, founder of the Razzies, an Oscar spoof that honors the year’s worst movies. “Who needs to go get more depressed right now and spend 10 or 12 bucks to do so? If that’s your idea of a good time, watch CNN, especially when they’re covering the financial stuff.”

Most likely top contenders for the Feb. 22 Oscars hit theaters in late November and December, among them “Milk,” with Penn as the slain gay-rights pioneer; “Revolutionary Road,” with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in a failing marriage; “Frost/Nixon,” featuring Frank Langella as President Richard Nixon after his fall from grace; and “Doubt,” starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman in a drama about a priest accused of abusing a boy.

Not necessarily the kind of stories to soothe people’s worries over their deflated retirement accounts amid recent stock-market turmoil.

“Escapism comes in many forms, but clearly it doesn’t come in the form that most Oscar contenders take,” said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Media By Numbers. “If you are putting an Oscar movie out there this season, let’s just say it’s going to be more challenging than in other years to get the box office rolling. Traction in this marketplace is a bit tougher for these kinds of films.”

Consider where audiences’ heads have been at as stocks tumbled. The talking-pooch comedy “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” led the weekend box office for two straight weekends, then the bubbly “High School Musical 3: Senior Year” did the same.

“I have been choosing things that seem light. More the date movies, I guess, as opposed to a World War II drama or something,” Shannon Marsnik, 34, of St. Paul, Minn., said at a theater where she had taken her two daughters and two nieces to see “High School Musical 3.”

Meantime, big-name dramas such as the terrorism tale “Body of Lies” (Russell Crowe and DiCaprio) and the police story “Pride and Glory” (Edward Norton and Colin Farrell) barely made a ripple, moviegoers ignoring them the way they have Hollywood’s attempts to dramatize the Iraq War.

“The last few weeks have been really tough for the R-rated adult films,” said Dan Fellman, head of distribution for Warner Bros., which released “Body of Lies” and “Pride and Glory.” ”The lighter fare seems to be taking a dominant position.”

That echoes the Depression, when slapstick comedy and glamorous musicals helped lift the nation’s spirits.

As awards-worthy movies slowly creep into theaters, counting on Oscar buzz to grab audience attention, they will compete with a strong lineup of lighter fare that blasts into nationwide release with monster marketing budgets behind them.

They include last weekend’s animated hit “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa,” this week’s James Bond adventure “Quantum of Solace” and next week’s vampire romance “Twilight” and cartoon canine comedy “Bolt.”

The onslaught continues through year’s end with Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn’s holiday comedy “Four Christmases,” Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson’s doggie tale “Marley & Me,” Keanu Reeves’ sci-fi remake “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and laugh-fests from Adam Sandler (“Bedtime Stories”) and Jim Carrey (“Yes Man”).

Among other serious films competing for the same eyeballs: Stark Holocaust-related sagas starring Daniel Craig (“Defiance”) and Winslet (“The Reader”); “Che,” with Benicio Del Toro in a two-part epic about the rise and fall of revolutionary Che Guevara (spoiler alert: Guevara was executed); “Valkyrie,” starring Tom Cruise as a German officer leading an assassination plot against Adolf Hitler (spoiler alert: the real-life conspirators against Hitler were executed); “I’ve Loved You So Long,” with a shockingly haggard Kristin Scott Thomas as a traumatized woman fresh out of prison; and “Slumdog Millionaire,” which pairs an uplifting love story with nasty moments of child mutilation, sibling betrayal and police torture.

“It’s always harder for more challenging movies. Any movie that doesn’t have a happy ending is going to be a harder sell,” said Ben Stiller, who reprised his lead voice role as the dancing lion in the “Madagascar” sequel, which just delivered an opening-weekend haul of $63.5 million, more money than most best-picture Oscar nominees take in during their entire run.

Even Clint Eastwood, a perpetual awards favorite whose Oscars films still can do big business, has a tougher sell than usual with “Gran Torino,” in which he stars with an otherwise no-name cast as a racist Korean War vet.

“Clint Eastwood is an automatic hitmaker and usually a guaranteed top Oscar contender. But Clint Eastwood as a despicable bigot?” said Tom O’Neil, a columnist with the awards Web site TheEnvelope.com. “We could see the proven players like Sam Mendes (“Revolutionary Road”) and Eastwood produce movies that get shunned by moviegoers and the academy alike because of these economic times.”

The prolific Eastwood already has managed to land one contender solidly enough in the Oscar picture with “Changeling,” a missing-child drama that has earned best-actress buzz for Angelina Jolie.

The movie pulled in $9.4 million in its first weekend of wide release, a decent return for a sober story, though small change for the slaphappy blockbusters that dominate Hollywood.

Some fans consider every trip to the movies a break from life’s hard knocks, whether it’s a light or dark story.

“I don’t care if it’s action, a comedy or a musical. I escape,” said Sheri Thillman, 45, of St. Paul, at a theater where she was catching “Changeling.” ”You kind of go with the story and escape your reality for a while.”

Jolie’s star power surely helped, but “Changeling” was a bit of an underachiever next to other recent Eastwood pictures. “Changeling” had an average gross of $5,055 a theater, compared with $6,102 for best-picture champ “Million Dollar Baby” and $7,120 for best-picture nominee “Mystic River” in their first weekends of wide release.

Even Eastwood’s commercial dud “Flags of Our Fathers” did better, averaging $5,461 a theater.

Yet studio executives expect this Oscar season to play out like any other, with the cream of the awards contenders finding a respectable box-office niche among the just-for-fun flicks.

“I think people are going to go to both,” said Mark Zoradi, president of Walt Disney’s motion-picture group, the studio behind “Beverly Hills Chihuahua,” ”High School Musical,” ”Bolt” and “Bedtime Stories.” ”As long as we don’t have an Iraq War movie, we’re going to have a fantastic Thanksgiving and Christmas season.”