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Are audiences hungry for message movies?

‘Jarhead,’ ‘Syriana,’ ‘Rent’ and ‘Munich’ all have political tales to tell
/ Source: Reuters

For film fans who whined last summer about boring stories with the same old action, Hollywood is ushering into cinemas several tales that will test the audience’s appetite for socially relevant movies.

The studios hope to entertain mass audiences with movies about war, politics and human interest topics that are typical fodder for documentaries or niche cable TV networks.

With the United States and some of its allies at war, the major studios would traditionally crank out escapist fare, like comedies and action adventures. But with many of those movies, like “Stealth” or “The Island,” flopping this summer and thoughtful films like “Crash” doing well, it may be that moviegoers are in the mood to think.

The change comes as box office totals are down about 6 percent from last year.

“Audiences want something smart and intelligent, but the rules of marketing still apply ... if it’s too esoteric, you may lose the mainstream audience,” said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box office tracker Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc.

The first major test will be the Nov. 4 debut of “Jarhead,” about the impact of the 1991 Gulf War on a group of Marines. Over the next two months come “Syriana” and “Munich” that delve into Middle Eastern politics, and the musical “Rent,” about young New Yorkers dealing with poverty, homelessness and AIDS.

“North Country,” about a precedent-setting sexual harassment lawsuit, is currently playing as is “Good Night, and Good Luck,” a look at political fear-mongering. Still to come is “Brokeback Mountain,” in which two gay cowboys deal with how society will judge them, and there are others on the list.

’Tis the drama seasonTo be sure, fall and winter are seasons when Hollywood rolls out movies about social and political issues to compete for Oscars, which tend to favor dramas. But the number of these films this year has surprised many industry watchers.

“You’ve got a load of movies that are engaged in political subjects,” said “Jarhead” director Sam Mendes.

Audiences will find it hard to watch Mendes’ film and not think about the war in Iraq. The film makes no statement on whether war is right or wrong, but focuses on how the Gulf War affected Marines who fought in it.

The promotional poster only features a soldier’s identification tag and oil wells set afire in the Kuwaiti desert — no blazing guns or exploding bombs.

“You can get away with [socially relevant movies] if you still entertain audiences. If you get to the level of preaching to them, then it turns off audiences,” said Pete Hammond, film critic for Maxim magazine and a veteran Oscar watcher.

Several of 2005’s social-minded films have posted solid ticket sales. In the spring, low-budget “Crash,” which looked at race and class divisions, took in $53 million, which surprised all box office watchers.

When the summer ended in September, ticket sales were down about 9 percent, but films mixing thrillers and social commentary such as “The Constant Gardener” and “A History of Violence” have aided in a slight rebound.

“Good Night, and Good Luck,” starring George Clooney, is expanding the number of theaters in which it is playing. It has one of the highest per-screen averages at just over $10,000.

“North Country,” starring Charlize Theron, landed at No. 5 on box office charts in its debut last week, with a total $6.4 million and a per screen average of $2,500.