Every year around this time, the multiplexes start filling with so-called "serious" movies -- the Oscar bait, the festival winners, the indie fan favorites.
But for the last few years, those films have had a problem: They haven't attracted much of an audience at the box office.
They've attracted an audience, sure. The silent film "The Artist," last year's best picture winner, made $44 million domestically. The Coen brothers' "No Country for Old Men," which earned the big trophy in 2008, remains the Coens' second-highest grossing film, after 2010's "True Grit."
The works of critics' darlings such as directors Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell and Wes Anderson routinely draw fervent followers to their local Bijou -- though the films then disappear until they pop up on Netflix a few months later.
That split symbolizes a growing divide between mainstream crowd-pleasers and awards-season fodder, points out Clayton Davis, editor of AwardsCircuit.com.
"All my friends who aren't into movies always complain about, 'The Oscars are all these movies I've never heard of before.' They don't gross a lot of money, but they're good quality," he says.
This year, however, he expects even his friends will be paying attention.
"This is the most competitive Oscar race I've covered in my 10 years of covering the Oscars," he says. "These are all movies that will do well at the Oscars, but people will be able to name them."
If that's the case, it will come as a relief to Hollywood power brokers. Just last year, prospects appeared dim for anything but the usual wave of escapist blockbusters.
"Everyone has cut back on not just 'Oscar-worthy movies' but on dramas, period," "American Beauty" producer Dan Jinks told GQ in February 2011. "Caution has made them pull away."
Well, as screenwriter William Goldman's classic Hollywood dictum goes, nobody knows anything.
Sure, it's still a comic-book-and-sequel world: "The Avengers," the year's top-grossing film, attests to that. But a number of critically acclaimed dramas have also snuck into the weekly box-office winner's circle, including "End of Watch" and "Argo." "Magic Mike," a comedy-drama from the unpredictable director Steven Soderbergh, topped $100 million.
And such films as "Lincoln," "Life of Pi" and "Flight" have had better-than-expected launches -- and, more importantly, strong word-of-mouth among adults, who traditionally don't clamor to see films on opening weekend the way teenagers do.
"The baby boomers are the biggest bulge that has ever existed in this country, and the studios are still chasing them," says Anne Thompson, the former Variety.com editor who now blogs at Indiewire.com's "Thompson on Hollywood."
She observes that one turning point came as the result of "The King's Speech," the slow-building 2010 best picture winner that made $136 million domestically and another $275 million overseas. Studios generally like to bet on action movies -- which require little translation -- for international profits, but the dialogue-heavy "King's Speech" managed to turn that belief on its head.
"The studios had shut down dramas," Thompson says. " 'King's Speech' came, made a huge amount of money, it won and showed there was a real audience for something like this."
In Hollywood, nothing succeeds like success, so it made sense that the studios had a change of heart.
"The studios are just being smart, and going after audiences actually loyal (to movies)," she says, "as opposed to the young kids who are home watching their video games."
'The perfect storm'
A good mix has also played a role, says Hollywood.com box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian.
"The box office is way up right now, and I think it's because of that strong bench," he says, observing that there's the proverbial "something for everyone" at the multiplex. "There's definitely something going on."
He reels off a list of recent or coming releases: "When you talk to people about 'Silver Linings (Playbook),' 'Hitchcock,' 'Life of Pi,' 'Skyfall' generating that kind of buzz -- to have people really excited about 'Les Miserables' and 'Django Unchained' and 'Zero Dark Thirty,' films people haven't even seen yet -- it's like the perfect storm right now."
It wasn't so long ago that dramas dominated the box office as well as pleased the critics. "The Godfather," regularly ranked among the greatest films of all time, was the box-office king from its release in 1972 until "Jaws" came out three years later. "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" was a huge hit in 1975. The quiet domestic drama "Kramer vs. Kramer," the 1979 best picture winner, was also the No. 1 box-office grosser of the year. "Chinatown," "Taxi Driver," "All the President's Men" -- all held their own with escapist thrillers, broad comedies, all-star disaster movies and Disney re-releases.
Even when the so-called '70s golden age gave way to the '80s, there was still room for variety: "E.T." and John Hughes, "Chariots of Fire" and "Police Academy," slasher films and foreign-language hits. But as the cinephile boomers got older, and pop culture trends moved on, so did the movies -- not always to the good.
In the GQ article, headlined "The Day the Movies Died," author Mark Harris blames movies like "Top Gun" for the descent into high-concept slickness. The 1986 film was a throbbing MTV emulation he characterizes as "pure product," "stitched-together amalgams of amphetamine action beats, star casting, music videos, and a diamond-hard laminate of technological adrenaline all designed to distract you from their lack of internal coherence, narrative credibility, or recognizable human qualities."