‘Buffy’ effect: Teen girls buoy screen screamers

Femme-friendly frightener formula: Make it scary but not gory

Hollywood’s latest strategy to get teen girls into movie theaters? Scare the hell out of them.

With a few exceptions, the recent string of successful scary films has been fueled by young women, according to the exit polls every studio conducts on opening weekend.

Shrieking teens could lead to a repeat of the first “Ring’s” success when DreamWorks opens “The Ring Two” March 18.

When Sony opened “The Grudge” to $39 million last October, 55% of the aud was female. For Fox’s “Hide and Seek” (which debuted with $22 million) it was 57%. The aud for Universal’s “White Noise,” which opened with $24 million was 58% female, the same figure for Sony’s “The Forgotten,” which bowed to $21 million.

The formula of the new femme-friendly frightener genre is fairly simple: Make it scary but not gory. Get a PG-13 rating so high school kids don’t have a problem getting in. And a female lead is a plus — it’s the Buffy effect.

The picture often credited with teaching studios that girls would flock to frights is “The Ring,” which became a surprising $129 million hit for DreamWorks when it was released in 2002. Studios suddenly became ravenous to develop PG-13 horror scripts.

But when the pic, based on a Japanese original called “Ringu,” was being produced, the studio expected teen boys to show up, says DreamWorks co-prexy Walter Parkes.

“I remember going to theaters showing the first ‘Ring,’ ” he says. “You would see groups of three and four teenage girls all peering from under one overcoat over all of their heads. It was a surprise to me. I had always assumed, from anecdotal evidence of earlier horror movies like ‘Friday the 13th’ that the audience was young adult males.”

Some profitable horror pics are more popular with guys — Lions Gate’s “Saw,” New Line’s remake of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and U’s “Dawn of the Dead” remake — but it is the prospect of teen girls rushing out for scares that’s pushing the fright biz these days.

“There is no question that over the last couple of years, young females have started attending horror films in greater numbers,” says Lions Gate co-prexy Tom Ortenberg. “By virtue of the added young female audience to the box office, they have elevated the recent spurt of horror success stories into event status.”

“Horror seems to come in waves — both filmmakers’ desire to make them and the audience desire to see them,” says Sam Raimi, who before “Spider-Man” made his name as a filmmaker with “Army of Darkness” and “The Evil Dead.”

“In the ’80s, the high body count became the formula,” he notes. Eventually, Raimi adds, “It was a lot of sequels, and it became not a cool thing to see a late-number sequel.”

Robert Tapert, Raimi’s partner in Ghost House Pictures, adds: “The audience is so smart. They’ve all seen ‘Scream.’ You have to be constantly reinventing chills and thrills for audiences. There are lower body counts, but there are great new ways to scare people.” Ghost House was the producer of PG-13 “Boogeyman,” which has grossed a solid $46 million to date.

Jane Buckingham, head of CAA’s market research firm Youth Intelligence, sees cultural trends at work.

Talking about today’s teen girls, she says: “It is a generation that loves intense experience, which is why horror films are so great. It’s also a product of girl power. They’re tough, and they want to show they don’t get scared.”

Some also see great business reasons to scare girls.

For one, these movies tend to be made cheaply. Explains Parkes, “It is a genre that provides the similar visceral reaction for the audience as a big f/x film, but you don’t have to do the big special effects.”

Repeat business also tends to be high. “It’s like a roller-coaster ride with them,” Tapert says. “The scarier it is, the more they’ll go back to ride it again.”

And the aud seems to be ready to try new pics week after week: Witness the nearly back-to-back successful horror openings so far this year.

“Low budget, PG-13 horror is what I’ve been repeatedly asked for by buyers,” says Roy Lee, who helped bring “Ringu” to U.S. studios.

But like any successful Hollywood genre, many are predicting the glut of horror pics looking to replicate the winners will eventually cool the genre’s appeal.

In fact, the recent Christina Ricci-starring werewolf pic “Cursed” seemed to be just that at the box office.

“Our experience,” says Parkes, “is that by the time you identify the trend and go through the process of developing and making a movie, the trend is gone.”

He hastily adds, “I’m hoping the trend doesn’t run its course before our sequel.”

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