Child actors falling short at box office

Young stars aren't opening movies

Ever since Hannah Montana stormed onto the bigscreen in February and shocked industry watchers with a colossal $31.1 million theatrical bow, studios have been looking to replicate the G-rated film’s box office success with myriad kidcentric pics.

But in the ensuing months, nothing has come close to fulfilling the expectations set by “Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour,” which amassed $65.3 million during its run, despite playing in only 687 theaters during its widest release.

Instead, films like Picturehouse’s G-rated “Kit Kittredge: An American Girl,” which took in just $17.6 million after unspooling June 20, failed to become the talk of the cafeteria line, leaving Hollywood wondering whether Miley Cyrus’ 3-D vehicle was a one-time phenomenon.

But Cyrus’ agent, UTA’s Mitch Gossett, insists “Kit Kittredge” did succeed among its intended audience. “Films like that have a life that is very long. So I don’t think the book is written yet on that film,” says Gossett, whose under-18 talent roster also includes Taylor Momsen and Chelsea Staub. “It’s not like a 100-yard dash. It’s more like a marathon, and they are just getting started with (that franchise).”

More importantly, Gossett and others agree that the kid-friendly marketplace is thriving, as evidenced by the number of high-profile tween-skewing properties in development around town.

DreamWorks is fast-tracking “The 39 Clues,” based on the Scholastic Media multiplatform adventure series. Steven Spielberg is eyeing the project as a directing vehicle, and Jeff Nathanson is penning the screenplay. Sony is also dipping into the Scholastic library with a bid to bring R.L. Stine’s young-adult “Goosebumps” series to the bigscreen. Meanwhile, Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies recently greenlit M. Night Shyamalan’s live-action fantasy adventure “Airbender,” based on the Nick animated TV skein “Avatar: The Last Airbender.”

New school thinking

“Kids are carrying a tremendous amount more power to drive people into movie theaters than they ever did before,” says CAA’s Nick Styne, whose clients include Selena Gomez and the Jonas Brothers. “That’s because of the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, the other family channels and the Internet. (These actors and actresses) are imprinting at a younger age into the fanbase.”

Still, bigscreen hits featuring young talent remain elusive.

This summer, teens didn’t flock to theaters to catch the documentary “American Teen,” despite strong Sundance buzz and a catchy marketing campaign that harked back to seminal teen film “The Breakfast Club.” The new PG-13 pic, which some deemed too similar to reality programming the target aud can get free on TV, earned only $927,000 for Paramount Vantage after opening July 25.

“Son of Rambow,” a well-reviewed U.K. import that plays like a cross between “Amelie” and “Goonies,” also fared poorly with domestic audiences, capturing a mere $1.8 million since bowing May 2, well below its $8.3 million foreign haul.

And though the Kevin Costner dramedy “Swing Vote” featured a precocious 12-year-old female lead, Madeline Carroll, the PG-13 pic played almost exclusively to older audiences en route to a modest $16 million haul following its Aug. 1 release.

For every “Harry Potter,” studios have served up box office duds like “Bratz,” a tween live-action pic (based on the successful line of toy dolls) that barely crossed the $10 million mark, and the $57 million-budgeted “Thunderbirds,” which garnered a weak $6.9 million.

Even Dakota Fanning, who became the go-to child thesp for her generation, has weathered box office woes in recent years. “Charlotte’s Web” and “Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story” fell short of expectations. The actress also endured the wrath of pundits for appearing in the edgy drama “Hounddog,” which features a rape scene.

Room for growth

Fanning, like “Kit Kittredge” star Abigail Breslin and “Atonement” star Saoirse Ronan, seems more interested in developing a long-term career rather than attaching herself to a hot brand. And that’s exactly what young talent and their representatives should be doing, Styne says.

“A lot of agents and a lot of companies don’t want their young actors that are maybe on a Disney or Nickelodeon or Fox Family show to go do an R-rated movie,” he says. “When you put a child into an R-rated movie, I don’t think it’s irresponsible. An actor’s job is to act, and they should be in the best material possible with the best directors possible. What we’re trying to do here at CAA is put our better writers and directors with the young talent and make better movies.”

Ultimately, good movies will find their audiences, Gossett says, especially when bolstered by the innovative campaigns that often accompany kid-friendly films.

“Marketing to kids is literally the new frontier,” Gossett says. “The people who specialize in this type of marketing are coming up with the smartest, cutting-edge ideas. It’s an area that encourages new models and new ways of thinking. I’m really impressed by their ability to develop viral strategies and online strategies. We haven’t even seen the full potential yet, but it’s keeping us old folks on our toes.”