The Endless Shortage of “Movies For Adults”

In The Simpsons Episode “Catch ‘em if You Can” (2004), Moe goes into a video store’s backroom with a sign marked “Adult film.” However, instead of picking up pornographic movies, Moe finds drama films made specifically to appeal to adult viewers, such as Merchant-Ivory films, “Unfunny Woody Allen,” and Brideshead Revisited. Although this seems insignificant, it plays on an important question: what exactly are movies for adults? 

Over the decades, people lamented the lack of serious-minded movies for older audience members. In most cases, the movies that tend to receive the label of “movies for adults” exist as dramas or films that examine a serious subject in a thought provoking way. “Movies for adults” do not necessarily refer to movies that only adults can see. Something like American Pie (2000) might be rated R, but it would never fit the criteria of somebody using this argument. Pornographic films count as “adult movies” because of their X-rated content rather than any challenging intellectual or moral points they make. The phrase refers less to a specific rating and more to a specific experience. 

In most cases, movies for adults seem to exist as a sentiment more than a full blown genre or truth. They exist in opposition to all the pablum currently produced in the movie business. “Movies for adults” are challenging, investing, and different. However, what defines a movie for adults really depends on what type of validation the viewer is seeking.

‘All The President’s Men’ (1976)

After the Watergate burglary, two journalists (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman) work to uncover a vast conspiracy before somebody gets to them.

Critic Arthur Knight opens his 1976 review for The Hollywood Reporter by saying that the number of American films dealing with political subjects can literally be counted on one hand. Knight also says that the number of films dealing realistically and factually with American politics was precisely zero before the film. Knight says that on some level he gets it because half the audience disliking a movie’s politics can spell trouble at the box office. He never uses the term “movies for adults,” but this is a similar sentiment to the criticism of “movies for adults” not existing. Knight also seems resigned to the fact that very few movies that deal with politics exist.   

The 1960s and 1970s

When I was growing up, I learned that the 1960s and 1970s existed as a time where people made movies about serious subjects. In high school, I watched the documentary Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How The Sex, Drugs and Rock n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (2003). In a 2019 interview, director Paul Schrader described the 1960s and 1970s as a time period where a new film addressing social issues came out every week.  

Film articles and essays about the 1970s tend to talk about how serious minded movies came out. However, they neglect to look at the other movies that came out around the same time period. When Warner Brothers released All The President’s Men in 1976, it also released 13 other films. None of these movies are the sort of topical issue driven movie ripped from the headlines that All The President’s Men is. Warner Bros released multiple sex comedies and action films. Two musical dramas (A Star is Born and Sparkle) came out at the same time. The same year All The President’s Men came out, Warner Bros also released The Gumball Rally, a wacky comedy about a cross country race.

The Ratings System

Before 1968, there was no ratings board to tell audiences what movies were made specifically for them. The ratings system helped ushered in the idea of a movie made specifically for adults rather than for a general audience.

It is hard to pinpoint when the modern version of the movies for adults narrative began, but the earliest mention of it in Variety comes from a 1994 article on the ratings system. This article discusses the recent NC-17 rating and how it marginalizes a film. Many theaters at the time refused to advertise such films. MCA Motion Picture Group Chairman Tom Pollock says that you might be able to get 1,500 theaters to play an NC-17 movie, but you could get 500 theaters. He goes on to say that it has now become economically viable to make movies for adults. it wasn’t 10 years ago. 

Similarly, in 1990, critic Roger Ebert told Lawrence Grobel of Playboy that when he was a teenager, he used to go to the movies to see what adults did. Now adults went to the movies to see what teenagers did. Ebert further describes how people over the age of 21 never seem to make love in movies anymore. Instead, they scold the younger generation. 10 years later, Ebert wrote an editorial about recent news regarding the MPAA ratings board. Ebert describes the board as bean counters rather than thoughtful. In this article, Ebert compares recent release Coyote Ugly unfavorably to Almost Famous. Coyote Ugly tells a story about a woman who gets into risque burlesque dancing at a local bar. It received a PG-13 rating. Almost Famous received an R rating despite Ebert feeling that it exists as a more meaningful experience to younger viewers.

Elegies of the Past

Elegy (noun) – a poem of serious reflection, a lament for the dead. 

Elegies tend to present the past as a great time. However, most elegies often do not explore the complexities or nuances behind these sentimental takes. Before the early 2000s, various people believed that American culture had gone downhill. Oftentimes they pointed to a new piece of technology or new trend infantilizing modern audience members.

Richard Brooks

In a 1977 profile with John Mariani for New York Magazine, 65 year old director Richard Brooks said that he made his new movie Looking For Mr. Goodbar because he became interested in telling a story about the “lack of commitment young people seem to have today.” Brooks goes through a list of ways that young people have become joyless and humorless. At the end of the quote, Brooks says that young people had become disillusioned that life did not turn out the way “the TV commercials say it should.”

Sidney Lumet

In a 1995 interview with Charlie Rose, director Sidney Lumet points to television as a big reason for the decline of America. Lumet feels that the 3 generations that had grown up with television had learned a TV producer’s version of reality. In contrast, the 70 year old Lumet had not grown up with television. He points to television as an isolating experience. In this interview, Lumet points to television as the direct cause of the homogenization of American culture. Lumet points to a recent experience where he went on a book tour. During the tour, Lumet discovered how many chains of restaurants and hotels there were. Lumet then point to homogeneity as what will destroy us all. 

To Lumet’s point, for the longest time there were only three networks. On Conan O’Brien’s podcast Conan O’Brien Needs A Friend, O’Brien discussed with Bryan Cranston how different TV was in the past. As a kid, O’Brien would watch shows on one of the three available networks (ABC, CBS, NBC). They pretty much made all the same shows because of the limited amount of competition. The stories would focus on good guys and bad guys. The good guys would always win. O’Brien then contrasts this with TV of the modern day, where the audience is allowed to feel ambivalence that they were not before.

The Decline of Culture

In a written piece for The Shawshank Redemption (1994), director Frank Darabont says that Americans have been sold a raw bill of goods by believing that everything worth doing has to be fun. According to Darabont, there are now more role models like Beavis and Butthead and Bart Simpson than Albert Schweitzer and Albert Einstein. Darabont does not believe that these characters created the current environment, but sees them as celebrations of stupidity. In a later part of his essay, Darabont describes how he does not believe our forefathers wanted us to “party on,” referencing the Abraham Lincoln character in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989).

Darabont also says that we’ve been MTV’d and Nintindo’d into Oblivion and narcotized into Junkiedom by the Home Shopping Network. This type of rhetoric is not uncommon in these narratives. In 2013, director Danny Boyle said that Star Wars (1977) and the Pixarification of Hollywood made it harder for serious sophisticated complex adult films to get made. 

Director Quentin Tarantino goes even further. On a 2022 episode of the podcast 2 Bears, 1 Cave, Tarantino talks about the Marvelization of Hollywood. He describes the Marvel characters in the movie seem to replace the movie stars. According to Tarantino, his only ax to grind against Marvel movies is that they seem to be the only things getting made and seem to be the only things that generate any excitement. Tarantino describes it as a problem of limited representation of an era in cinema. He also points out how movie stars no longer move the needle like they used to. He points to Sandra Bullock’s career as an example of this. She made Speed (1994) and then her career took off.  


When asked about if serious cinema would survive in a March 2004 interview with The Independent, director Paul Schrader replied that it would, but that it was always lean times for serious subjects. He elaborates by saying that most everything is bad (food, architecture, furniture), so why shouldn’t most movies be bad? Schrader also points out that lots of good stuff came out in the 1970s.   

In this same interview, Schrader describes movies as a 20th Century phenomenon. Schrader says that we are about to see the end of movies as we once knew them. He lists three factors for this. Firstly, the coherence in American culture that made movies so popular has disappeared. People do not watch the same shows and now have hundreds of channels to choose from. Unless it is a phenomenon like Lord of The Rings or Harry Potter, tastes are completely splintered. Secondly, people do not see audio-visual entertainment the way their parents did. Schrader lists his own children as an example of this. Thirdly, the system of distribution is about to collapse. More music was legally downloaded rather than purchased in stores. Schrader predicts that this will lead to four times the number of cinemas and further balkanize the movies. 

When asked what keeps him going, Schrader says that the novel does not necessarily hold the same place it once did culturally. Nonetheless, there are still good books to read.

The World of 2004

The Independent conducted this interview in 2004 before many of the factors that people blame for the modern moviegoing experience were in place. Youtube and streaming did not exist. Facebook had just launched the previous month. Batman Begins (2005) and Iron Man (2008) had not been released yet. 

In many ways, the situation has not changed, but the technology has. As recently as March 2023, director Steven Soderbergh gave an interview with Rolling Stone where he said that distribution is a bit of a chicken and egg thing. Soderbergh describes how mid-level adult movies are getting squeezed out by the big superhero movies because the exhibitors are just trying to survive. On the flipside of this, Soderbergh says that everytime he laments the end of movies, somebody comes along and makes a movie that changes the trajectory of the theatergoing experience. Soderbergh adds that he always believes the artist’s ability to figure shit out and reinvent the business.   

‘Primer’ (2004)

Primer (2004) tells the story of two engineers who accidentally invent a time machine. Now they must face the consequences of their new invention.

In some ways, Primer is a little different than the other movies in this section of the article. The story focuses on a fantastical subject matter. It received a PG-13 rating for some language, but can pretty much be watched by everybody. 

For this article, I decided to include Primer not because of its focus on a serious subject, but because of the reaction to the material. In his review for The Guardian, critic Peter Bradshaw describes Primer as “the type of movie-making that assumes its audience are intelligent adults.” In this case a story made for adults is one that does not hold the audience’s hand. The point has less to do with the subject matter and more to do with the storytelling. 

Primer does not necessarily provide easy answers for its narrative. In a 2020 interview with Indiewire, director Shane Carruth describes how marketing and distribution tend to treat both trivial films and edifying films the same way. In this example, he presents a “Garfield” cartoon as trivial, while presenting Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread (2017) as edifying. 

Carruth himself has not seen the same success in recent years. Multiple ex-girlfriends have taken legal action against Carruth for domestic violence. 

‘Flight’ (2012)

Flight (2012) tells the story of William “Whip” Whitaker (Denzel Washington), an alcoholic pilot who managed to land an out of control plane despite being intoxicated. Now Whip has to contend with the potential legal consequences thrust upon him.

As a story, Flight focuses on a moral dilemma and tells a story about an adult situation. Review after review from the time note this. In his review from The Guardian, critic Tom Shone noted that it was already being hailed as “The Kind of Adult drama they don’t make anymore.”  Shone felt that the film was more entertaining and cunning than that. 

In contrast, Andrew O’Hehir of Salon described the movie as a 1990s Afterschool special on its subject matter. Something that appears to be adult to many can appear like a childish approach to another person. 

With lots of movies that come out (even fairly serious ones), the narrative is fairly cut and dry. Good wins at the end of stories. Characters grow and change. The experience is ultimately one that suggests a positive change rather than any real sense of ambivalence or narrative frustration.

‘The Nice Guys’ (2016)

Los Angeles, 1977. After her daughter disappears, a high ranking member of the Justice Department (Kim Basinger) hires mismatched duo Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and Pat Healy (Russell Crowe) to find her. 

Unlike many movies in this article, this focuses on a nostalgic time period rather than topical issues. In many ways, it is your traditional buddy cop comedy with a more mature edge. The co-writer and director, Shane Black, became known for making a heightened version of this type of movie.

Critic James Bernardenelli described the film as “a refreshingly adult movie” in a time of superhero films geared towards teens and family fare. In his review for the Chicago Tribune, Richard Roeper placed the comic duo above the duos in recent releases Dirty Grandpa, Ride Along 2, and Zoolander 2. Critics loved The Nice Guys. It represented something different from the usual fare that audiences got during the time period.

‘Air’ (2023)

Desperate to help his company, a shoe executive (Matt Damon) works to get the endorsement of one of the biggest future athletes: Michael Jordan.

This is what I tend to see people describe when they talk about movies for adults. The film does not exist as a franchise. It focuses on an unglamorous subject that would only interest an adult audience. The filmmaking handles its subject matter in an extremely earnest way. It even went to theaters instead of premiering on streaming like many similar movies.

In her Breakfast All Day review of this movie with Alonso Duralde, Christy Lemire says that Ben Affleck makes these solid good old fashioned mid-budget movies for grownups. Lemire goes on to say that you do not really see movies like that anymore. Duralde also says that fellow film critic Ben Mankiwiecz would describe this type of movie as “a movie where people are good at their jobs.”

In general, Matt Damon has made many recent movies that have been labeled “movies for adults.” Indiewire pointed to Ford v Ferrari (2019) and The Last Duel (2021) as all too rare examples of movies for adults. 

AARP’s Movies For Grownups Awards

Every year, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) has an awards show on PBS that awards movies that speak to an audience over the age of 50. All movies nominated appeal to an older demographic. Every person on the list of standalone nominees is over the age of 50. In this case, “movies made for grownups” refers to movies made for older people.

This year, not every movie about older characters or starring older actors made it into the awards ceremony. For example, The Good House, a movie that played in theaters when I saw Smile, did not receive any nominations. The film received decent reviews and starred Sigourney Weaver and Kevin Kline. It also has a third act scenario that makes the audience feel ambivalence towards the main character. All things considered, there have been many movies starring older actors in the past years.

The Best Picture award for movies for Grownups went to Top Gun: Maverick this year. In 2011, journalist and author Mark Harris pointed to the original Top Gun (1986) as destroying movies for adults and diverse Hollywood filmmaking. At the end of the piece, Harris said that the planned sequel proved all of the problems with the Hollywood system. Harris later stated on Twitter that the article was mean and a sweeping generalization, but he did not regret writing it. In an odd turn of events, what once was credited with destroying moviegoing for older audiences became a celebrated movie for older audiences.

What is a Movie for Adults?

In many ways, “movies for adults” do not seem to exist outside of a perpetual financial and cultural crisis. A 2003 Variety Profile on Seabiscuit begins by saying, “Hollywood – who knew they made movies for adults?” Article writer Bill Higgins adds that the film’s July release ends a drought of serious movies that has been around since January. The Spool’s negative review of Uncle Frank (2020) says that if dramas for adults are going to survive post-pandemic, they need more than one good performance in them. 

Multiple articles exist that have titles about “movies dying” in writing this article. Author and journalist Mark Harris wrote an article titled “The Day The Movies Died.” It is where the Top Gun take comes from. Ryan Lattanzio wrote a piece for Indiewire in November 2013 called “Your Week in Streaming: Why the Commercial Art Film Is Dying, and the Scandalous Films That Define Its Legacy.” Both pieces discuss the refusal of financiers to make movies for adults. 

When people discuss movies for adults, they tend to talk about good mature movies and how much of an impact those movies make, both financially and culturally. In many ways, the “movies for adults” discourse focuses on a feeling that the theatrical experience lacks diversity outside of the lowest common denominator fare. A movie often gets labeled as a “movie for adults” based on its place in the current entertainment landscape.


Before 1971, the voting age in the United States was 21. In 1968, American International Pictures released Wild in the Streets, a movie about what would happen if the voting age was lowered. In that movie, teenagers take over the government and end up sending every adult off to a camp. The story ends with an even younger generation of kids planning to do the same to the teenagers in change. In reality, the voting age was lowered and there are now more geriatric politicians in office than ever.   

It is easy to look around at the cultural landscape and think that the world has become more infantilized. Many movies have been released that do not challenge audiences, especially older audiences. However, such thought processes are not necessarily new. Unlike past generations, the audience can now readily find good movies from the past. 

I often find this point somewhat myopic, but I also will not tell anybody to stop talking about “movies for adults.” Almost every time somebody uses this phrase, they have seen a movie that breaks through the white noise and inspires them in some way. That makes the term valuable in some way.