LOS ANGELES — There are blowups and car chases, belly laughs and romance. Then there's the grown-up stuff that sneaks into movie theaters among all the big studio action thrillers and comedies.
Hollywood calls them counterprogramming, word-of-mouth or specialty films — nice ways of saying no one wants to put up the money to advertise these little movies whose budgets often would not cover the lunch catering for a superhero flick.
The Iraq War thriller "The Hurt Locker" opened in a handful of theaters last summer, gradually rolling out to wider release to pull in $16.4 million at the domestic box office. That's a respectable return for an independent film but spare change compared to blockbusters that soar into the hundreds of millions.
Yet "The Hurt Locker" came away with Hollywood's biggest non-cash prize — best picture at the Academy Awards — over billion-dollar sensation "Avatar."
So these little films can become serious business — if they manage to find enough of an audience to break out of the arthouse ghetto.
"There is a major audience out there looking for the alternative to mainstream fare. There's an older audience, there's a college-educated audience looking for something different," said Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, whose below-the-radar summer offerings include Annette Bening and Naomi Watts' "Mother and Child" and Robert Duvall and Bill Murray's "Get Low."
Video: 'Mother and Child': May 14 "Summer and Christmas are the two times when you've got the most people going to the movies, and we want some of that," Barker said.
Opening May 7, the same day as "Iron Man 2," "Mother and Child" stars Bening, Watts, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson and Jimmy Smits in a tale of three women whose lives have been touched by adoption.
Co-starring Sissy Spacek, "Get Low" (July 30) features Duvall as a backwoods misanthrope who decides to hold a big funeral send-off for himself — while he's still alive — and hires an undertaker (Murray) to arrange it.
With little advertising, often playing in scattershot release in a handful of cities, such small films rely on good reviews and fan recommendations to build an audience.
"I like the blockbusters, the good ones. I'll go see 'Iron Man 2.' But I get tired of it, and I keep my eyes out for that good film that always seems to be in the background somewhere," said "Get Low" director Aaron Schneider.
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"There is a gold mine of movies behind the blockbusters," Schneider said. "It's like products on the shelf that don't get stacked in the most accessible space, but they might be better than the brand of toothpaste they're using now."
Some movies aimed at older audiences have a bigger studio pedigree and star wattage, such as Julia Roberts' "Eat Pray Love" (Aug. 13).
Based on Elizabeth Gilbert's best-selling memoir and directed by "Glee" co-creator Ryan Murphy, "Eat Pray Love" stars Roberts as a woman on a globe-trotting quest to fill the holes in her soul.
Video: 'I Am Love': June 18 Most grown-up offerings are independent films, though. Others coming this summer include Neil Jordan's "Ondine" (June 4), with Colin Farrell as an Irish fisherman whose luck improves after he catches a woman in his net who could turn out to be a mythical "selkie," or seal creature; "Cyrus" (July 9), featuring John C. Reilly as a man trying to start a relationship with a woman (Marisa Tomei) against the wishes of her overprotective son (Jonah Hill); "The Kids Are All Right" (July 7), starring Julianne Moore and Annette Bening as lesbian moms getting to know the sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo) who fathered their teenage children; and "Winter's Bone" (June 11), about a teenager (Jennifer Lawrence) on a perilous journey through the criminal underbelly of the Ozarks to find out what happened to her missing father.
Adapted from Daniel Woodrell's novel, "Winter's Bone" features a mostly unfamiliar cast but has strong buzz from winning the top dramatic prize at January's Sundance Film Festival.
"Winter's Bone" director Debra Granik said her main hope is that the film makes its money back for its financial backers.
Then there's the dream scenario, "if somehow it caught fire in a little way, and people saw this strong American story and thought, God, this is such fun to see an American tale spun well by an author and to see some new faces busting their butts to do a good job," Granik said. "It would be this really gorgeous green light that there's an audience and space in the marketplace for small films to have a life."
Other films this summer for grown-up audiences:
- "Solitary Man" (May 21): Michael Douglas stars as a former car dealer whose indiscretions wrecked his business and his family.
- "I Am Love" (June 18): Tilda Swinton plays the Russian-born matriarch of an Italian family who has an affair with a friend of her son.
- "Restrepo" (July 2): Author Sebastian Junger ("The Perfect Storm") co-directs an acclaimed documentary centered on a platoon fighting in Afghanistan.
- "Looking for Eric" (May 21): Director Ken Loach delivers a comedy about a depressive British postman with a fantasy spiritual guru (soccer star Eric Cantona).
- "Micmacs" (May 28): Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet ("Amelie") spins a romp about misfits trying to take down corrupt weapons manufacturers.
- "Babies" (May 7): A documentary traces four infants from birth to their first steps in Namibia, Mongolia, Tokyo and San Francisco.
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