Is the death of movies for grown-ups greatly exaggerated? This year’s best picture Oscar race says yes

Manchester by the Sea
This image released by Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studios shows Michelle Williams, left, and Casey Affleck in a scene from “Manchester By The Sea.” (Claire Folger / Associated Press)

On Sunday night, nine mostly midbudget films with grown-up themes — loss, war, discrimination, artistic struggle — will compete for best picture at the 89th Academy Awards. That may sound like business as usual for an awards show that traditionally favors critically acclaimed dramas, but this isn’t: Nearly all of them have performed well beyond expectations at the box office.

Manchester by the Sea” is one of them. An intimate, emotionally wrenching indie about a man coping with unimaginable grief might make sense as an Oscar nominee (it’s up for six awards, including best picture), but it isn’t necessarily the kind of movie you’d expect to do well — or perhaps even reach theaters — outside the orbit of a major city.

So when someone sent “Manchester” director Kenneth Lonergan a photo of a marquee in Missoula, Mont., emblazoned with the film’s title, he was elated.

“There are all these smaller towns where it is playing and doing well,” Lonergan said of the film, which has earned more than $46 million domestically. “It’s such a thrill.”

And something of a surprise.

For years the conventional wisdom in the executive suites of Hollywood has been that movies need to go big or go tiny. Nonfranchise films with adult appeal and midrange budgets, the kind that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences holds in such high esteem, seemed so near extinction that it was feared even the Oscars couldn’t save them.

Indeed, after only one of the five 2008 competitors had broken $100 million at the domestic box office, the academy expanded the best picture category to as many as 10 films, in the hopes of accommodating at least a couple of blockbusters that, in turn, might make the race more broadly relevant (and boost the ratings for the annual telecast).

And for years, that’s what happened: One or two juggernauts joined underperforming critics’ darlings, which still often won — in 2010 “The Hurt Locker” beat out “The Blind Side” and “Avatar” — while audience and academy members thought wistfully of the days of “Forrest Gump” and “The Silence of the Lambs.”

This year there is no “Forrest Gump” among the best picture nominees, all of which cost between $5 million and $50 million. But there’s also no “The Hurt Locker,” which grossed just $17 million domestically in 2009, the lowest tally…