Harry Potter has cast his final spell. Hannah Montana performed her closing number. The “Twilight Saga” will take one last bite of the box office next fall.
Hollywood’s kid-friendly marketplace finds itself at a crossroads, as the megastars and uber-franchises of the past decade have given way to more question marks than shoo-in successors. Conventional wisdom dictates that a new youth-driven phoenix should rise from the ashes, but the studios and fans alike find themselves still waiting for the next big thing.
“When you’re talking about the ‘Harry Potters,’ the ‘Hannah Montanas’ and the ‘High School Musicals,’ you don’t see one out there right now,” says Adam Bonnett, senior VP of original series at Disney Channel. “That doesn’t mean that the next one won’t come along in a heartbeat. It’s about finding the right kid or group of kids with the right concept. Timing is a big part of it.”
Disney Channel has high hopes that it has already found its next behemoth with its dance-centric series “Shake It Up,” now in its second season. In fact, Walt Disney Co. has placed its corporate machine behind the property with the aim of multiplatform expansion. Though the series spawned the reality dance competition special “Make Your Mark,” there’s no talk yet of crossing the characters over to the bigscreen in the same fashion as “Hannah Montana” and the “High School Musical” classmates.
Meanwhile, Nickelodeon is putting its muscle behind a trio of music-themed series, the Victoria Justice topliner “Victorious,” the boy band vehicle “Big Time Rush” and the upcoming pop/hip-hop/coming-of-age hybrid “How to Rock,” based on a book from Alloy Entertainment (“Gossip Girl”).
“We’re in a time where there is a shift and a changeover with the stars,” says Marjorie Cohn, president of original programming and development at Nickelodeon. “As is always the case, there’s a transition as new talent emerges.”
Similarly, the film industry is feeling its own growing pains as the multibillion-dollar “Harry Potter” franchise exited the multiplex this summer. The two most promising properties looming — “The Hunger Games” and “Ender’s Game” — both face roadblocks in filling the void left by the boy wizard. Based on Suzanne Collins’ wildly popular teen-lit series, “Hunger Games” enjoys an enormous built-in fanbase. But with a subject matter that deals with kids killing kids, studio Lionsgate will find it difficult to penetrate demos as young as “Harry Potter.” Even “Hunger Games” casting skewed older than originally planned. Jennifer Lawrence, 21, beat out 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld and 15-year-old Abigail Breslin to star in the Gary Ross-helmed pic.
Summit, looking to repeat the success of its “Twilight” films, jumped on board OddLot’s “Ender’s Game” this spring and will co-finance and distribute. Still, the sci-fier, which takes place in a dystopian world under alien attack where children are trained as soldiers, poses a tougher sell than “Twilight’s” themes of forbidden love.
Yet, it’s no surprise that darker content has emerged as the headlines continue to paint a bleak picture thanks to a sputtering global economy. Even a squeaky-clean network like Disney Channel has swapped out aspirational fare like “Hannah Montana” in favor of authenticity.
“What’s working on our channel right now is smart, relatable, grounded family comedies,” says Bonnett, citing “Good Luck Charlie,” “Jessie” and “A.N.T. Farm” as examples. “We’re working hard at shining a light on kids and their families and interpreting families in different ways, not just mom and dad and their biological kids. It’s a reflection of our times.”
Furthermore, young auds are becoming ever more evolved media consumers and will reject content that panders to them. Diablo Cody, who is penning an adaption of teen-lit series “Sweet Valley High” for Universal, says writing for a young demographic poses far more challenges than creating teen characters geared at adult auds, the way she did for “Juno.”
“It surprises me how sophisticated the young-adult audience is,” says the “Young Adult” scribe, who is looking to write her own young-adult novel in the future. “My generation was so naive and easily pleased. These kids are critical thinkers.”
Cohn echoes that sentiment. “The standards of quality have definitely grown,” says the exec, who cites parent-child co-viewing as among the biggest trends in the field. “Kids are gobbling up media in giant chunks. They know how TV works and what goes into making a show. They know all the formulas. They still enjoy them, but the curtain has been lifted.”
CAA’s Nick Styne, who handles a roster of the biggest names in young Hollywood, says kids today know when something is being put together by adults or forced upon them, as evidenced by the backlash against YouTube star Rebecca Black and her viral hit “Friday.” They even can sniff out when an actor is tweeting himself versus when someone else is doing it for him.
And though an increasingly savvy demo presents its own obstacles, Styne insists that there has never been a better time to be young and talented. He points to films like “Hugo,” which marks Martin Scorsese’s first venture into kid-friendly territory and features two young leads, as well “Real Steel” and “Super 8” as examples of films carried by kids.
“There are better opportunities for kids than ever before,” Styne says. “If you look at these movies and really dissect them, there are high-quality roles for kids. The same can be said about TV — everything from ‘Modern Family’ to the networks that cater to kids reflect this. People recognize their value and appreciate that kids can be really good actors, too.”