After wooing new demos, biz again gets kid-centric

Judging by what is getting greenlit these days, it’s not too much hyperbole to suggest who is, once again, becoming the most important person to Hollywood: The 12-year-old boy.

Studios, networks and vidgamers have always prized the young male demographic, which is harder to hook and harder to keep.

A spate of recent major deals in the industry has sharpened the focus on the pre-adolescent set, moves that will lead to a flood of superhero projects, sci-fi and fantasy epics and toy spinoffs.

The idea is to draw boys early, and they will follow franchises into their adult years. It’s a trend that is bound to continue if only for the mere fact that it appears to make sound business sense.

“In an era where brands have become the new stars, (pics like) ‘Battleship’ have become big opportunities,” Univeral Pictures chairmen Marc Shmuger and David Linde said in a statement last week in announcing plans to set sail with Peter Berg helming a bigscreen version of the Hasbro game for the studio.

Since at least the summer of “Star Wars” more than three decades ago, the studios have been tailoring entertainment to young males. But Hollywood in recent years had begun to take this group for granted, as they avidly pursued other demos: Adults over 35, the female “Mamma Mia!” crowd, and horror-loving young women, to name a few.

Now Hollywood is realizing that it has lost touch with young males, who have been abandoning movie-going and TV-watching with increasing speed.

They don’t want a repeat of 2007, when 1 million fewer men in both the 12-24 and 25-39 age brackets saw movies at the megaplex.

While some networks like MyNetworkTV, Syfy and Spike have boosted ratings with World Wrestling Entertainment, Ultimate Fighter and action hours, male viewership of primetime TV has continued to erode, with broadcasters losing 600,000 18-to 34-year-old guys last season compared to the year before. The 2% drop is significant given that viewership changes very little from year to year.

Disney has been reminded of its loss of testosterone lately.

It was particulaly apparent at Disney’s recent D23 Expo, where fans found fairies, princesses and Tinkerbell pins alongside glittery wedding dresses and free makeovers. But, with the exception of a couple of “Star Wars” Stormtroopers wearing Mickey Mouse ears, “Toy Story” and “Prince of Persia” Legos, or models for “Cars Land” being built at California Adventure, there was little that appealed to males, big or small.

Disney admits that’s a problem area for the company, with its chief executive Bob Iger saying, “We’d love to attract more boys. … We obviously know Disney has a lot of products that are more girl-skewed than boy and we’d like the opportunity to go after boys more aggressively.”

Ponying up $4 billion to buy Marvel Entertainment’s lineup of superheroes, relaunching cabler Toon Disney as Disney XD and introducing a scary toon label with Guillermo del Toro is a start.

But Disney is hardly the only Hollywood major to open its wallet and spend more lately to buy back the boy audience.

Studios are doling out the dollars to revive aging franchises like “Star Trek,” “Conan the Barbarian” and even “Highlander,” or broker deals with companies that are successfully entertaining males of all ages — especially comicbook publishers, videogame and toy makers.

That’s because dudes flock to superheroes, drive the $21 billion videogame biz and will spend $600 million just to buy “Transformers” toys this year (up from $480 million when the first pic bowed in ’07).

The plan is to produce future slates of movies and seasons of TV shows that essentially give the demo more of what they seem to want.

Last year’s top five pics were “The Dark Knight,” “Iron Man,” “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” “Hancock” and “Wall-E,” which together, generated $1.6 billion at the domestic B.O. alone. In most cases, studio execs happily noted the “other” quadrants who watched these films — then realized that they needed to re-focus on the key quadrant responsible for their success.

“You’re going to see more of the same, not because studios have run out of ideas but because it makes money,” says one Warner Bros. executive who has several of these projects in development. “Males like this stuff and they spend a lot of money on it.”

Grabbing that coin is crucial for Hollywood at a time when bottom lines are being scrutinized more than ever. With movies getting more expensive to make and market, instantly recognizable properties are considered easy sells; studios don’t want to roll the dice on pricey bets.

Universal, desperate for tentpoles and a franchise or two, locked down an overall deal with Hasbro to turn popular toy brands like Battleship, Clue, Monopoly, Candyland, Ouija and Stretch Armstrong into movies. It has a similar pact with Dark Horse Comics for edgier comicbook fare, and has one-off pic projects like a Barbie movie with Mattel and an adaptation of the BioShock game from Take-Two Interactive.

Nearly every studio has a major toy property in development, with Hasbro’s “Transformers” and “G.I. Joe,” and Mattel’s “Max Steel” at Par, “Hot Wheels” at WB, and “View-Master” at DreamWorks. Sony just secured Mattel’s “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.”

They also almost all have a Marvel superhero locked down as well, which doesn’t let Disney exploit the characters as much as it would like.

Warner Bros. has been especially keen on comics and games, recently overhauling its own DC Comics division to speed up how it develops the company’s characters into movies and TV shows, while it’s been buying a slew of videogame publishers to beef up its inhouse gaming operation.

The goal is to adapt many of those games into other forms of entertainment — it has a “Tomb Raider” reboot in the works through a relationship with Eidos, and its recent purchase of Midway Games should lead to a “Spy Hunter” actioner — but the unit will also focus on exploiting its DC heroes into games for different age groups.

Last month, it produced “Batman: Arkham Asylum,” a gritty game aimed at adult males, while it launched “Lego Batman” earlier this year, a cartoony version of the Caped Crusader that clearly targeted younger boys.

Naturally, Sony, with its PlayStation division, has also focused on videogame adaptations, and is developing films based on titles exclusive to the PS3. Other studios are starting to consider picking up Electronic Arts’ top properties, while Disney has Jerry Bruckheimer’s version of “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” based on Ubisoft’s hit franchise set to bow next summer.

The interest in reaching boys has been playing out in cable as well, with Cartoon Network, Disney XD and Nickelodeon’s Nicktoons all vying for that market.

Cartoon’s animated series “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” has become a powerful draw among boys — the second season launches in October — while Nick has turned to animated versions of Marvel properties like “Wolverine and the X-Men” and “Iron Man: Armored Adventures” in an effort to gain boys’ loyalty. Disney XD offers a mix of live-action and animated series, filling out its roster with previously produced programs from the latter category featuring Spider-Man and the X-Men.

Hasbro has pacted with Discovery to collaborate on the channel previously known as Discovery Kids, tapping Margaret Loesch, former president of Marvel Prods. and the Fox Children’s Network, to oversee the venture.

Starting young certainly can’t hurt.

Getting boys hooked on certain animated characters will likely encourage them to move on to the live action versions as they get older. Merchandise sales would be sustained throughout the years for the companies behind them.

That includes DVDs — especially Blu-rays — whose buyers are mostly men, mainly because the PS3 videogame console is the dominant Blu-ray player in households.

With movies that target guys proving the safest sells on shelves, studio homevideo divisions are programming their Blu-ray releases with men in mind.

“The success we’ve had with director’s-cuts of ‘The Matrix,’ ’300′ and ‘Troy’ on Blu-ray speaks to the strong core male base that is motivated by these action/sci-fi films,” says Jeff Baker, exec VP and general manager of Warner Home Video’s theatrical catalog. “At this time in the catalog segment, the price gap between standard DVD and Blu-ray is $14. But on the aforementioned films, the gap is greater than $20, and it has not inhibited these titles from being our best-selling catalog titles on Blu-ray.”

Warner Bros. wanted to bow “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy on Blu-ray for the first time later this year, but wound up bumping it to 2010, to tie-in with two key “Rings”-related videogame releases.

By that time, there should also be significantly more PS3s in homes, given that Sony recently cut the console’s price by $100. Sales already spiked 300% the week after the price drop.

Now if only Disney could find a way to buy PlayStation …

Brian Lowry and Susanne Ault contributed to this report.

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