Originally created 02/16/99

Hollywood's youth movement comes of age



LOS ANGELES -- She may slay vampires on the WB TV network, but Sarah Michelle Gellar was no match for sweet little Rachael Leigh Cook or sensitive guy James Van Der Beek at the box office.

Three teen movies in a row this year, and it's Buffy who got the boot. Ms. Gellar's romantic Simply Irresistible fizzled while Ms. Cook's romantic She's All That and Mr. Van Der Beek's football story, Varsity Blues, scored.

It may seem simple enough to crank out one of these films: raid the cast of Dawson's Creek; get a cool soundtrack; throw in a love story or horror plot; and faster than you can say Prized Demographic you're atop the box office.

But as audience resistance to Irresistible shows, it just isn't that easy to infiltrate the hearts, minds and purses of the youth market.

That's a lesson studios are going to learn with sobering regularity this year as Hollywood rolls out the biggest slate of youth movies since the Brat Pack ruled in the 1980s. Arriving at the clip of about one a week, some are doomed to fail.

"You have this audience with an insatiable appetite for movies that address their experiences," said Paul Dergarabedian, of box office-tracker Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc. "The problem is that if you get too many of them in the marketplace they could sort of cannibalize each other."

But still they come. For the rest of this month there are Jawbreaker with Rebecca Gayheart and rocker Marilyn Manson (opening Friday) and 200 Cigarettes with Courtney Love (Feb. 26).

Next month brings Cruel Intentions, with Ms. Gellar once again (March 5); Wing Commander, based on the video game and starring Freddie Prinze Jr. (March 12); Go! (March 26), with Katie Holmes and Sundance Festival favorite Sarah Polley; and Ten Things I Hate About You (March 31), starring Julia Stiles of the recent TV miniseries The '60's.

Looking further ahead is a modernized Mod Squad with Claire Danes (April 2); Drew Barrymore going undercover as a high schooler in Never Been Kissed (April 9); Detroit Rock City, about Kiss fans (April 16); the Kirstin Dunst-Denise Richards film whose title keeps changing but at last look was called Drop Dead Gorgeous (April 30); and the sex-charged American Pie (May 28).

Studios are cranking out these films for a simple reason: money. The young audience is growing, and studies clearly show that teen-agers watch more movies -- and are more influenced by movie advertising -- than their parents or grandparents.

Also, youth films generally are cheaper to make -- less than $15 million, compared with the industry average of about $53 million. That means less downside if the flick fails, and greater rewards if it is a hit.

Add to the mix a healthy afterlife on cable and video, and it's easy to see why producers are going back to high school for movie material.

Youth pictures have been around for decades, the recipes written in the late 1950s and early 1960s with the Gidget movies and drive-in fright pictures.

Through the '60s there were Annette and Frankie on the beach and Elvis in Hawaii; the 1970s had Grease and Meatballs; the 1980s -- the genre's heyday -- had everything from The Breakfast Club to the Porky's trilogy. And the '70s and '80s also saw a rash of teen slasher flicks, from Halloween to Friday the 13th and their many sequels.

Most in the industry trace the recent wave to both the demographic change and the success of Scream in late 1996.

"They started seeing that there's a lot of money to be made in this market," said industry analyst Robert Bucksbaum of Reel Source Inc. "Scream started all this, and it's just taken these two years to get all these films out of development."

Having recognized the demand, the key was coming up with the right movie. Every filmmaker has a different philosophy of what today's youth want, be it sex, violence or even Shakespeare (Ten Things I Hate About You retools The Taming of the Shrew with a high school setting).

A common notion, however, is that the film must somehow ring true for the audience.

"You try to tap a nerve emotionally," said Robert Levy, a producer of She's All That, an updated Pygmalion tale about a guy who tries to transform the high school art geek into prom date material. "You have to be true to their feelings. They will smell out the picture that they want to see. They won't just see the movie because it's the teen movie of the week. I don't know how they do it, but they do."

Ms. Gayheart, one of the stars of Jawbreaker, a darker-than-average youth film about a bad-girl clique at high school, said the film has "a lot of undertones" that will appeal to younger audiences.

"It's really clever and smart and doesn't underestimate teen-agers," said the actress, who, now in her mid-20s, vows that this will be her last high school film. "It's edgy."

In casting and themes, television plays a major role. Many of the stars of the youth films are on loan from such popular teen shows as Dawson's Creek, Party of Five and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and kids seem more than willing to plop down $7 or $8 to watch stars they can see on the tube for free.

"It's like if you have these pieces of chocolate cake for free, but if, say, you can have the whole rest of the cake for $8 -- and you're hungry ... yeah, you're going to buy the rest of the cake," said 19-year-old Ms. Cook, who had a recent guest appearance on Dawson's Creek.

Another factor is timing.

Varsity Blues and She's All That were released during a recent quiet time at the box office and faced no strong competition until Mel Gibson's Payback came charging in last weekend, debuting at No. 1. By then, Varsity Blues and She's All That had made their money -- and carved out a tidy niche.