KEEN ON TEEN GREEN

Taken unawares, H'w'd refocuses on youth

Disney’s “101 Dalmatians” barked louder, TriStar’s “Jerry Maguire” commissioned a better percentage and New Line’s “Michael” was commercially angelic. But the loudest noise made in the holiday marketplace came from Dimension’s “Scream” and Paramount’s “Beavis and Butt-head Do America.”

Industry execs can’t make butt-heads or tails out of the box office of these presumed programmers. The horror pic-ture with a twist and the animated low comedy weren’t expected to do more than $20 million each. So how to explain the current expectation of $60 million to $70 million per film?

“The only person who really believed ‘Scream’ could do $25 million at Christmas was Bob Weinstein,” Miramax marketing president Mark Gill said. “But no one dreamed of the kind of business it’s doing, or that it would cross over to an older audience. It’s unprecedented.”

In fact, the two films’ success has spurred new consideration of the teen audience, a segment that’s largely been ignored by the majors for the past five years.

Major hits in recent memory aimed at 16- to 24-year-olds have been scarce, but include almost anything starring Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler or Chris Farley, Fox’s recent “Romeo & Juliet,” “Clueless,” and a couple of others. Much more attention has been paid to creating either event films meant to appeal to the full spectrum of filmgoers, or niche films for families, thirtysomethings and older that have crossover potential.

The Valenti effect

“By design or not, Hollywood has been making fewer films for a youth audience,” said Cineplex Odeon exec VP Howard Lichtman. “The industry got very caught up in a graying America and (MPAA prexy) Jack Valenti’s annual reminders at ShoWest that the fastest-growing moviegoing segment is people over 40. It’s true the teen population had been eroding, but according to demographers, from 1996 through 2002, that age group is going to grow. With the unexpected response to ‘Beavis’ and ‘Scream,’ you’ll see a lot more films for teens very quickly.”

Demos and statistics have been manipulated in a way that’s worked against greenlighting pictures with strong youth appeal. While it’s true the general population has been aging, the backbone of moviegoing remains late teens and early 20s. That is the segment with the most available leisure time, and filmgoing is one of the most affordable out-of-house entertainment activities.

One well-known contemporary director notes that today’s studio decision-makers are out of touch with the teen audience. Conversely, he attributes the rise in films for younger children to the Hollywood boomers who have small kids of their own.

It’s also very difficult to spot a teen hit. “Youth films are the most fun to program,” said United Artists Theatres VP Mike Pade. “But you’re kidding yourself if you believe you can predict what will work for that audience. A solid soundtrack is a good signal, and then you don’t have much more than gut instinct.”

Pade estimated that teens represent a dedicated audience of about 10% of frequent moviegoers. They have essentially been making hits of films directed at other target audiences.

With “Scream” and “Beavis and Butt-head,” the situation has been reversed. People who would never dream of seeing either picture are wondering what all the fuss is about, and making these hits even bigger. The films are working because the crossover crowd also finds the films entertaining.

Indie turf

It’s unclear how quickly the studios will get on the youth bandwagon. Historically, it’s been the indies who’ve capitalized on youth trends with high-concept, low-budget fare, from “Beach Party” to “The Pom-Pom Girls.” But most of the companies that specialized in making them quick and funky have segued into direct-to-video produc-tion.

One senior production exec said there’s a constant frustration on the lot that the time between identifying some-thing “hot” and getting it on screen often means the trend has cooled, or moved into the ice age. Nonetheless, Gill maintained that the industry tends to live “in a world of trends,” with a long history of responding to whatever movies are working commercially at that moment.

But Gill cautions that the ongoing dilemma for youth cult themes is that they’re generally tied to the society they’re made for. Very few have ever translated outside the boundaries of North America.

“The youth market never went away, in truth,” says researcher Joseph Helfgott, president of MarketCast. “The only thing that’s changed is the product. The two recent films certainly satisfied that audience, and conform to the phenomenon of one hit film feeding into another. And let’s not forget that the films benefited from the fact that young people didn’t have other movies they wanted to see. The picture might have been very different if there had been a really good action movie in the marketplace in December.”

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