(CNN) -- 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."
Moreover, the new thinking redirected film-school hopefuls into becoming bottom-line-oriented executives, he continues. "If movies were now seen as packages, then the new kings of the business would be marketers, who could make the wrapping on that package look spectacular even if the contents were deficient," Harris writes.
More room for creativity
In the quarter century since, studios have anted up bigger and bigger budgets in hopes of bigger and bigger paydays. And because the familiar is the easiest concept to sell, the budgets are generally assigned to sequels, reboots, TV show adaptations and comic books. With notable exceptions -- "The Silence of the Lambs," Quentin Tarantino's genre hopping, the occasional Clint Eastwood surprise -- it's the blockbusters that end up overwhelming the year-end box-office lists.
This year's list also features blockbusters, of course. But with "Magic Mike," "Lincoln," "Argo" and "Flight" topping or approaching that key $100 million metric, there are signs that mainstream, major-studio dramas are making a comeback.
The studios aren't taking the game for granted: They're targeting awards voters (and, not incidentally, audiences) with promotional "For Your Consideration" ads. If a major-studio film wins best picture, it will be the first to do so since 2006's "The Departed."
All this may also be an indication of the benefits of pop culture broadening, with more outlets offering more space for more creativity. As Steven Johnson pointed out in his 2005 book "Everything Bad Is Good for You," we're living in an age in which pop culture has grown richer and more complex, best expressed by the detailed storytelling in TV series such as "The Sopranos" and "Lost" that has attracted both big audiences and critical praise.
That hasn't been lost on filmmakers, says Michelle Satter, founding director of the Sundance Institute's Feature Film Program, a leading training ground for the entertainment industry. They have more options for getting their visions out there, whether it's TV, indie film, documentaries, the Internet -- or mainstream studio pictures.
"There's a blurring of the lines (among media) where filmmakers can tell their stories," she says. "The means of production are readily available."
Sundance has provided support to several filmmakers currently making waves, including "Dark Knight Rises" director Christopher Nolan, "The Master" maestro Paul Thomas Anderson, and Tarantino. They're the kinds of directors who know their crafts -- and their film history.
Another bright spot in mainstream filmmaking is the prowess that directors, writers and actors have brought to big-budget escapist entertainment. Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy was widely successful on many levels. "The Avengers" was already going to do well, but thanks to some clever touches by writer-director Joss Whedon (who co-wrote "Toy Story" and created "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") the film earned a sparkling 92% rating from critics on the review aggregator Rottentomatoes.com. The new James Bond film "Skyfall" has the usual incredible action sequences, but also some genuine grit; it's been ranked highly by reviewers and may become the most successful Bond film ever at the box office.
Avoiding bad social buzz
Meanwhile, some anticipated 2012 blockbusters -- the kind of easy sell Hollywood banks on -- went bust: "Battleship," the remake of "Total Recall," the Adam Sandler vehicle "That's My Boy." That highlights the role of the ultimate critic, the audience, says Thompson of "Thompson on Hollywood."
"With social media, you cannot just assume that a movie can be stupid and bad and just go out," she says. "(The studios) have to make them better -- they have no choice. They could get away with it before. They can't do that anymore." If a film is to have "legs" -- a long theatrical run -- it has to succeed beyond the first weekend, and that means getting the audience on your side so viewers don't post pans on Twitter and Facebook after Friday night's opening.
Some films have even been the victims of early critiques. Already, studios have rescheduled such big-budget tentpoles as "World War Z" and a "G.I. Joe" sequel, in the hopes that retooling will make them more palatable, says Thompson.
Now, along with "Nobody knows anything," the other Hollywood truth is the one from Ecclesiastes: There's nothing new under the sun. (Or, as Warner Bros. founder Jack Warner reportedly put it, "Great movies aren't made. They're remade.") This season's films have roots in a long-running musical based on a classic novel ("Les Miserables"), a major best-selling book ("Life of Pi"), ripped-from-the-headlines topicality ("Zero Dark Thirty"), and stories about one of the most renowned leaders in American history ("Lincoln"). "Les Miz" also has the box-office punch of big stars in Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway.
In other words, one can argue that these films are as presold as any branded comic-book movie.
But then again, stars don't open movies the way they used to, as Julia Roberts ("Mirror Mirror") could tell you. And even the most heavily marketed, notably anticipated films can fail. "John Carter," anyone?
So whether the current mix of mainstream success and critical praise is a momentary blip or a rising trend, it's something to be celebrated by mainstream moviegoers. Motion pictures, for better or worse, remain at the top of the pop culture food chain. They're expensive and often disposable, so when they're executed well -- when they actually succeed in moving us -- fans should hope that there's room for more.
"It's a great and exciting moment for filmmaking and creativity," says Sundance's Satter. "And the audience wants to be a part of it."