H’wood chases choosy teens

Studios can reap wins if youth pix are savvy, sexy

Last year, the teen moppet comedy was a must-have on every studio’s development list. Cheap, colorful and easy to market, they were the cinematic equivalent of shopping at Target.

In the last five months half a dozen of these movies have unspooled, with more on the way. However, with B.O. perfs ranging from the solid $25 million opening weekend of “Mean Girls” to the pallid $12 million run of “Chasing Liberty,” it’s become clear that not all prepubescent divas were created equal.

In some cases, the studio might wish they weren’t created at all.

Warner Bros. broke the wrong kind of record with the Olsen twins’ “New York Minute.” Averaging $1,983 per location, it became the lowest-performing film to ever open on more than 3,000 screens.

So, here’s the question: What’s the difference between a bubblegum movie that pops and one that becomes a sticky mess?

While a formula has yet to reveal itself, Hollywood has produced enough of these pics in the last 12 months for patterns to emerge.

Consider:

If you are going to indulge in wish fulfillment, make it a wish your audience would like to have fulfilled. Teens didn’t much care about Julia Stiles dating royalty in “The Prince and Me,” although they were keen to see Anne Hathaway receive a royal makeover with “The Princess Diaries.” However, Hathaway failed to charm while escaping an obedience spell in “Ella Enchanted.”

But watching Jennifer Garner become a grown-up overnight in “13 Going on 30,” or Lindsay Lohan getting revenge on the popular high school clique in “Mean Girls”? Those were the fantasies they could relate to — and therefore, the ones worth watching.

“Girls want immediate wish fulfillment,” says Rosalind Wiseman. She’s the author of “Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence,” which Paramount Pictures optioned to become “Mean Girls.” “They want to feel like they have power and they’re not exposed and vulnerable.”

Wiseman says she can see why “Princess Diaries” and Garner’s pic connected, and “Prince and Me” didn’t. “I clearly understand why girls want to see that they stop being gangly and become fabulous. But while girls have huge crushes on boys, there’s no girl who wants a prince to save her. The only reason they’d want to see it if they thought the guy was really hot. But you’d never admit it to your friends because they’d think you were completely lame.”

When it comes to sex and other vices, don’t be too explicit or too evasive. This is a particularly tricky area. Pretending that teen audiences are unaware of sex is naive and, from a marketing perspective, stupid. On the other hand, going overboard with drugs and debauchery won’t fly with PG-13 standards.

Hollywood can be skilled when it comes to keeping images on the sweet side of sexy. Witness Hilary Duff on the one-sheet for “The Lizzie McGuire Movie”: wearing a terrycloth miniskirt, she stands on the toes of her tennis-shoed feet, making it only look as if she were wearing six-inch heels.

Ditto Garner’s fresh-faced pose that advertises “13 Going On 30.” Lace-edged lingerie and a lotta leg is a lot to see from a would-be 13-year-old, but the actress has a guileless, coltish charm that carries the day.

Not so for Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. Their feature bow was supposed to rep the Olsens’ bid for acceptance beyond the preteen set. However, the most significant difference between “New York Minute” and the direct-to-video productions that built their billion-dollar empire is that the twins perform one long sequence wearing nothing but bath towels.

As a result, their audience was much the same as the one that watched the twins on DVD: 9-year-old girls.

There’s a fine line between edgy and falling off the edge. “Mean Girls” received high marks for its tart-tongued screenplay, courtesy of Tina Fey, head writer for “Saturday Night Live.” Thus the film had the appeal of a classic Bugs Bunny cartoon: plenty of gags for the kids and enough sophisticated jokes to keep the adults entertained.

So why isn’t the upcoming Mandy Moore starrer “Saved!” benefiting from the same kind of good buzz? It’s a subversive comedy with many of the same themes: acceptance, friendship and navigating the shark-infested halls of high school.

However, it’s hard to imagine how to market a movie that spoofs teen pregnancy, gay identity and religious fanaticism.

United Artists’ solution has been to schedule the film as a Memorial Day weekend counterprogrammer and to launch an email marketing campaign with sometimes-baffling messages like: “You are not born a ‘gay.’ You are born again.”

So where does all of this leave upcoming pics like “Princess Diaries 2” or Hilary Duff’s “A Cinderella Story”?

Wiseman’s judgment call sounds much like any Hollywood exec’s: it will all depend on the execution. “If it’s trite and packaged, they’re going to see right through it. They’re very sophisticated consumers.”

However, she says that Duff’s movie does have one thing going for it: Jennifer Coolidge plays the mean second wife of Duff’s dad, who takes over the family diner after his death.

Says Wiseman: “You can never go wrong with revenge on your stepmom.”

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