Road to Perdition, which opens next month, isn't your typical Tom Hanks movie. The Nicest Guy in Hollywood plays a taciturn hit man in Depression-era Chicago--not the kind of movie you'd expect to see in the summer. No clones. No superheroes. And the car chases never exceed 45 m.p.h. It will be released on July 12, right between Men in Black II (July 3) and Austin Powers in Goldmember (July 26). Walter Parkes, co-head of the DreamWorks film division, concedes that "it's an unusual time to release an R-rated adult picture. But if you look at this summer, it's so front-loaded with big-event movies, it seems that the audience might be ready for serious fare rather quickly."
Actually, we already are. Among the sound and fury and ka-ching of this summer's sequels and action movies (which will make summer 2002 by far the richest in Hollywood history), there's also a healthy menu of serious studio movies and smart independent comedies and dramas that audiences are embracing. Last month the searing adultery drama Unfaithful opened between Spider-Man and Star Wars and has held on well at the box office. The R-rated Al Pacino thriller Insomnia has also done well. The unassuming but endearing indie comedy My Big Fat Greek Wedding has found an audience, with minimal advertising and generous word of mouth. And Miramax is betting against the glut of blockbusters with four art-house movies this summer, including Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest and Full Frontal, director Steven Soderbergh's star-studded but extremely arty movie set for release Aug. 2. "The premise behind releasing all these is, there's nothing for my mother and my friends to see in the summer," says Mark Gill, president of Miramax L.A. "They're not going to all the big blockbusters. They like smart movies."
Smart movies can be smart business. Though big-studio offerings like Unfaithful and Road to Perdition come with big budgets, most of this summer's alternative films are low-cost endeavors with wider profit margins. There's a word for this strategy: counterprogramming. The classic example is Saving Private Ryan, an R-rated war movie that became an unlikely blockbuster in the summer of 1998. But this summer's crop of good alternative films is even more bountiful than usual.
Miramax has the sharp sex comedy Tadpole (opening July 19) on its summer slate, says Gill, because "a very sophisticated comedy is much tougher to release in the fall, when there are sophisticated dramas." Fox Searchlight is putting out The Good Girl, a dark comedy starring Jennifer Aniston, on Aug. 7, and duplicating the carefully mapped out release pattern it used for The Deep End last year. Like many indie films, The Good Girl will open first in New York City and Los Angeles. "When you don't have big TV-advertising budgets and you're really relying on publicity and buzz, you need to start in New York and L.A.," explains Fox Searchlight distribution president Steve Gilula.