H’wood keen on teens to play to their peers

Paychecks rising for latest crop of stars jumping from TV

It’s no secret that Hollywood has long been obsessed with youth. But the town’s never looked younger.

Realizing that teens and tweens (kids age 9-12) are more than ever powering the B.O.’s biggest hits, the major studios are in the midst of releasing a slate of pics engineered to target those demos.

The stars are purposefully young, the plots are romantic or comedic and easy to digest. They’re rated PG or PG-13. And more important, the budgets are low, promising potentially huge profits.

Consider this:

  • Pics targeting the lucrative under-21 demo are flooding the multiplexes in full force, including Fox’s “Just Married,” MGM’s “Agent Cody Banks,” Warner Bros.’ “What a Girl Wants” and Disney’s “Holes” and “The Lizzie McGuire Movie.”

  • Each of those pics stars a thesp already well-known to younger auds — including Hilary Duff, 15; Amanda Bynes, 16; and 17-year-olds Frankie Muniz and Shia LaBoeuf, some of whom are making their bigscreen debuts. They’re providing hefty competition to older stars such as Bruce Willis, John Travolta and Tommy Lee Jones, whose latest pics — “Tears of the Sun,” “Basic” and “The Hunted,” respectively — are struggling.

  • The youngstars pulling in big paychecks. Muniz banked $2 million for the first “Agent Cody Banks” and will bring home $5 million for the sequel. Duff’s “The Lizzie McGuire Movie” hasn’t hit theaters yet, but she’s set to make $2 million for “Cinderella Story” at Disney.

Hollywood’s kid craze isn’t coincidental. Its strategy is simple: Go after the demo with the time and the money to spend on entertainment.

According to the Motion Picture Assn. of America, 50% of all tix sold in 2002 were purchased by 12- to 29-year-olds. Across the board, 20 million teens and tweens spent $250 billion last year for everything from movies and vidgames to clothes and junk food.

Hollywood has cranked out kid vehicles since the days of Mary Pickford. But the enthusiasm for adolescents is in high gear for several reasons. These pics often are cheaper than films with older stars, and they’re easy to market; also, the kids’ salaries aren’t yet at the level of their adult counterparts. And these pics are goldmines on video and DVD.

Aside from vehicles created with kidstars in mind, there is a slew of properties that need plenty of child actors, since they’re based on children’s books. In the wake of WB’s cash cow “Harry Potter,” there are adaptations in the works of “Holes,” “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events,” “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “Artemis Fowl,” among many others.

While studio marketing heads in the past had to create buzz around a young actor from scratch, today their jobs are much easier.

To populate their pics, studios are turning to young television stars. With established names, the TV kids will, Hollywood hopes, appeal to the youth market and bring their fans with them when making the leap to the big screen.

The Disney Channel and Nickelodeon have proved to be career launching pads for the stars of their shows. Duff and LaBoeuf star in Disney Channel’s “Lizzie McGuire Show” and “Even Stevens,” while Bynes and Nick Cannon, 22, who starred in Fox Searchlight’s surprise hit “Drumline,” are vets of Nickelodeon’s “All That.” Bynes stars in the WB series “What I Like About You.” Muniz stars in Fox Broadcasting’s “Malcolm in the Middle.”

It’s obvious that kids will turn out for movies that don’t just star kids.

So does Hollywood even need to build films around young TV celebs in order to guarantee big B.O. bucks?

Studio heads say teen/tween turnout contributed to some recent B.O. successes, including “Bringing Down the House,” “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” “Just Married,” “Maid in Manhattan” and “Two Weeks Notice,” as well as many previous pics, including “Legally Blonde” and “My Best Friend’s Wedding.”

But those pics didn’t necessarily star actors the same age as its primary ticket buyers, nor did they necessarily target younger auds.

The grosses of “What a Girl Wants,” “Holes” and “The Lizzie McGuire Movie” have yet to be tallied, but previous hits signal the risk may be worth taking.

“Agent Cody Banks,” on a budget of less than $30 million, already has generated $36 million at the domestic B.O. The first two installments of Miramax’s “Spy Kids” trilogy, starring Alexa Vega, 15, and Daryl Sabara, 11, have raked in $119 million.

Disney’s “The Princess Diaries” generated a phenomenal $108 million in domestic coin. “Drumline,” which had a budget of $20 million, grossed $56 million earlier this year, thanks in large part to the appeal of star Cannon.

More youth-targeted pics are in the works: Besides a second “Agent Cody Banks” and third “Spy Kids,” Disney is readying a remake of “Freaky Friday” with 17-year-old Lindsay Lohan (star of its popular “Parent Trap” remake). Lohan will star in “Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen,” in the works at the Mouse House; Duff’s “Cinderella Story” also is upcoming.

Studios have picked up several youth projects in recent weeks. New Line acquired a pitch called “Slay the Bully,” about a kid who transfers to a junior high that’s terrorized by a bully and accidentally causes the downfall of the pint-sized oppressor.

Meanwhile, MGM has a comedy about a group of kids who think they’re going to summer camp. Instead they end up in a juvenile detention facility and must escape the facility’s maniacal proprietor.

Outside of Disney, the Lion is the studio most hotly pursuing the youth market, with marketing execs calling viewers under 21 “the target audience right now.”

This year alone, the studio and its niche distrib UA have nine films targeting the teen/tween demo, including “Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde,” “Agent Cody Banks,” “A Guy Thing,” “Molly Gunn,” “Jeepers Creepers 2,” “Saved,” “Good Boy!,” “Wicker Park” and “Bulletproof Monk.”

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