Is a multiplex full of family films the future of moviegoing?
It's just a place of hopelessness and despair for those of us who are not young children.
That may sound a little dramatic, especially since movies aimed at sophisticated adults -- i.e. "Winter's Bone" and "Cyrus" -- are performing well within their (very) limited parameters. But for the bigger-budgeted films, the kinds that studios spend most of their time and money producing, it's barely an exaggeration. For the second week in a row this summer, the box office showed signs of life. And for the second week in a row, the instrument providing the CPR was a movie aimed at (and seen by) kids and the parents who take them, as "Toy Story 3" grossed an eye-popping $109 million.
That follows last week's surprise $56 million of "The Karate Kid" (a movie performing so well that it didn't seem to suffer from the encroachment of "Toy Story," which sought almost exactly the same audience, this week).
And it further follows a litany of disappointments for movies aimed at everyone else, as everyone else seems to be rejecting what studios are offering them -- the teen and 20-something action junkies who didn't turn out for "Prince of Persia" or "The A-Team," the 30- and 40-something women who didn't turn out for "Sex and the City 2," the young comicbook fans who didn't turn out for "Kick-Ass," the, well, whoever it was studios were aiming at with "Jonah Hex."
Of course adults went to see, and in many cases enjoyed, both "Toy Story" and "The Karate Kid" (we did when we saw the latter last week). But it's impossible not to notice a trend in all this: Families are the ones going to the movies these days. Perhaps the only ones.
That's not just a summer phenomenon. Almost every big hit among the 2010 releases has been a movie whose primary, if not overwhelming, audience is children 12 and under -- "How to Train Your Dragon," "Shrek Forever After," "Alice in Wonderland." Ditto for the year's biggest sleeper, "Diary of a Wimpy Kid." In fact, there isn't a single big-studio movie aimed at children that failed, save perhaps for "Marmaduke" (and some would argue that wasn't a movie).
Many of the film world's most prominent disappointments, meanwhile, have been movies aimed at teens, 20-somethings and early 30-somethings, and films that went hard after them like "Hot Tub Time Machine," "Get Him to the Greek" and "Cop Out" (not to mention movies that target actual adults rather than, um, overgrown adolescents).
There were a few scattered exceptions -- "Valentine's Day" and "Shutter Island" both did very well drawing adults. (And one major exception, "Avatar," drew all audiences, though that movie is sui generis and came out in 2009 anyway.) But by and large it's been a growing box-office truth. Get the kids and you'll get the dollars. Otherwise, as a studio executive, you may see red (as your knuckles go white and your hair goes gray).
This trend is of course at least partly testament to the quality of family films. It used to be that kids went to see almost anything thrown at them, so as a result the studios threw pretty much anything at them. But the last few years have brought a conspicuous rise in the quality of family entertainment, led chiefly by animated movies, which makes adults more willing to come and see them too.
But we also shouldn't be too taken aback by this trend for another reason. The move to the family film is a continuation of the phenomenon of the great shrinking audience that Hollywood has seen (and in many ways enacted) over the past few years. First, it was filmgoers over 30 whom the studios abandoned -- which they did by closing down the specialty divisions that made movies for that audience -- to concentrate on films made for fanboys.
Now, with so many movies aimed at young males flopping this year, it may not be long before they move away from those too. "Iron Man 2" was a strong performer (in part due to all the goodwill that existed for the first movie). But is there a studio on Earth that wouldn't want any one of the big animated hits over, say, "Clash of the Titans"? Or "The Wolfman"?
There's no way of knowing how panicky studio executives will react to all this. But if past experience is any indication, they tend to overcompensate in the direction the wind is blowing. So family films that are in development will get pushed up the pipeline; movies aimed at everyone else get pushed back. And before you know it (usually in two or three years, when the winds may have changed direction again), we could see a multiplex full of movies the whole family can enjoy.
Smart movies aimed at kids aren't a bad thing, of course; Hollywood could certainly use more "Toy Storys" and "Dragons." But if those are the only options at the multiplex on a Saturday night, that hardly seems welcome either.
Sociologists and psychologists will give reasons why children are the only ones going to the movies. And film pundits will offer their own explanations -- namely, many of the movies aimed at people 13 and over aren't very good (four words: "The Bounty Hunter," and "Killers"). But the reasons are in a sense less important than the consequences. Studio executives like to avoid risk (the only the thing, it can sometimes seem, that they're passionate about these days). And making a movie for anyone other than families means taking a huge risk. A family film, on the other hand, will deliver a happy ending almost as certainly as a climactic fight scene in the "The Karate Kid."
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Toy Story 3. Credit: Pixar/Walt Disney Pictures
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