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Is a multiplex full of family films the future of moviegoing?

June 21, 2010 |  9:30 am

So it turns out the box office is not a place of hopelessness and despair.

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


Toy Story 3 appears blessed; Jonah Hex appears cursed

Toy Story 3 opens at No. 1

Diary of a Wimpy Kid could augur a post Harry-Potter boom

Does the new Karate Kid do the original justice?

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Comments () | Archives (28)

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This article is utterly pointless. In its third paragraph it lists a bunch of movies that audiences rejected somehow as proof of some demographic move away from films aimed at slightly older audiences. But Mr. Zeitchik conspicuously fails to mention that every single one of those movies happened to be horrifically bad.

If the studios want to lure in older audiences they need merely make better movies. If as much creative integrity, courage and willingness to risk were spent on films for adults as they are on films aimed at younger audiences, then adults would go to the movies.

But to say that demographic tendencies for movie attendance are shifting to younger ages because adults won't go see "The A-Team" or "Jonah Hex"... are you kidding me? We won't just lap up any slop the studios dump in the trough just because they dumped it, you know.

To the studios I say, have some guts, stop making sequels and super hero movies and give us something worth our time. Then we'll show up.

Yes, all the smart development will move to family films. I'm not too broken up about it. Everything happens in cycles. We've been a fanboy cycle for a few years now. Before that, was the adult drama and thriller era. And the late '80's were action and action-comedy. Moving into another cycle, "The Family Film Era", is nothing to panic over. Even during the height of other genre eras other types of films were made. Those films just became a niche and didn't make much profit, but made enough to keep the niche alive and fans of the genre entertained.

Plus various types of genres have now migrated to mostly TV: medical dramas, police dramas, documentaries, etc. Why pay to see it in theaters if you can see quality genre product on TV? Even your favorite movie stars are increasingly moving to TV. The fall TV schedule is full of new fanboy type shows: superheroes, spies, action shows, etc. To me, this is the biggest signal yet that the fanboy movie era is over and has migrated to TV for now. The only question remaining was what would take their place. Now we have the answer: Family films.

This article is exactly what I've been seeing for a few years now. It's tragic in my opinion but, like all trends, temporary.

It's a trend. Like all trends, subject to change. I'm an action movie fan... or I was. Adventure these days seems to be a lot less adventurous.

get ticket prices down and teens will start going to the movies again instead of the dozens of other choices they have to spend their very limited allowance money.

As the father of a 3 year old and soon to be father of another, I welcome more family movies in the theaters. Our family doesn't sit in front of the t.v. or go to the movies a lot, in fact we allow our daughter only one evening per week of "t.v. time" for family movie night. Sometimes we opt instead to see a movie in the theater, as was the case this weekend with Toy Story 3. There are times, months even, when I really feel like taking my daughter to see a movie and there is NOTHING we can watch together, so we wait, and wait, AND WAIT for a date like June 18th, when we can all go again. Here's the problem and possibly the solution: "Kid's" movies have gotten more clever and entertaining over the years, especially when it comes to pandering to the parents without loosing the kids. Having seen superb and EXCITING films like Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon recently and then having gone to movies aimed at an older demographic, the predicament becomes clear: Adult films have gotten duller and duller with a quicker and quicker turn-around. Studios are obviously putting their emphasis into making a buck first with focus on story 2nd, 3rd, or even last in some cases. Meanwhile "kids" films (hoping just as much to make a buck I'm sure) are still putting their main efforts into story and craft. Plain and simple: films aimed at the older demographic would do better if they were actually half as good as those aimed at families!

I don't want to see a multiplex full of "kids" movies (I like having options), but I wouldn't mind more of them in the slower months. What I would like to see is a film aimed at adults that captures the same dedication, passion, daring, and dare I say: excitement, that is obviously being put into films aimed at the younger demographic. Then and only then will moviegoing become a staple in teenage and adult lives again.

One more thing, ever notice how there's a comfortable balance between new original stories and sequels in "kids" movies? Maybe that's how people prefer things.

I was under the impression that a film that doubled its budget in box office wasn't a flop. Kick-Ass better than tripled its budget, which means it's into profit and the DVD and Blu-ray haven't even been released, yet. Not bad for an adaptation that no one had ever heard of [outside of maybe a few thousand comics fans].

And Jonah Hex may well have flopped because it was announced as a hard-R supernatural western thriller and when it was finally released it had been whittled down to 81 minutes for a PG-13 release [and it was painfully apparent that a lot of stuff had been edited out of the film - and very poorly, too]. I can tell you right now, that that cost the film a lot of its intended audience. I love the comic and if I hadn't had to review it, I wouldn't have gone either once I learned it was PG-13.

So a couple of your examples don't really fit the model you're developing here.

However, it seems as a consequence the "family friendly" movies produced now are becoming more and more "adult friendly". Bathroom humor, crude language and sexual inuendo have slipped into movies for young kids, apparently to expand the audience. How sad that movies can't be made with kids solely in mind. Walt D. must be spinning.

Come on-- yes there have been some misfires, but most of the "adult" movies have been lousy, and note that most of the "family" movies all have the 3D surcharge added to them, inflating their grosses. HOT TUB TIME MACHINE made over $50 million and GET HIM TO THE GREEK will probably top out at $65 or $70 million-- and both are the kinds of movies that will do well on home video. Didn't everyone b$%#h just a month ago that some family movies were disappointments when SHREK EVER AFTER underperformed? This is like one of those "horror is dead" articles that comes out just before the next genre franchise like the SAW films blossoms.

Year in and Year out audiences don't go for trashy movies, swearing, $ex, ect., yet year in and year out these moves get produced and make less money than family movies. (There will be a few exceptions to this). This is also why the academy awards ratings dwindle to smaller levels with each passing year. Maybe there needs to be more producers with main street values than Hollywood values, then Hollywood would be more profitable. (Could investors enforce this type of change?) The problem is the producers would rather spill their filth and political agenda on the world then make movies people enjoy.

Pay attention Hollywood. The consumer still likes to be entertained and likes to have fun but the fact is the public is much better able to spot a shoddy product these days. And TV is very good at all the niches you've given up on cf dramas. One point to mention, before you dump 15 million into a bunch of special effects try having a group of four read the script aloud beforehand. Computer generated visual wonder is a commodity now.

I think this analysis is a little rushed. Many of the movies being shot down by viewers this year where just horrible movies. Example Prince of Persia, anyone in that films demographic new it would be garbage purely for the fact that it was a video game conversion.

Couple this with the fact that older kids and young adults have less money because they are out of work or their parents are. Its a lot easier for a teen to accept a parents financial hard-times than a 7 year old who really wants to see toy story. Kids are the cheap target anyway. How many fast food restaurants pander to the kids in ads and happy meals so that mom and dad will bring the whole family no matter how bad the food?

If you even want to draw this trend using this year as a guide you need to severely reduce the weight or eliminate the success of Shrek and Toy Story as they carry big brands. They could have been horrible and still made good money. With many parent growing up with Alice and/or the Karate Kid those brands again carry power that the other films can't compare with and weaken the idea of this trend.

Nevermind that Toy Story's success can be attributed to its broad appeal among adults, which is why it and the Karate Kid were able to comfortably share the weekend. As David said, give movie-goers something worth their time, and they come out in droves.

No, 'kids' movies aren't the ones making money. In addition, kids aren't the only ones seeing them.

Toy Story 3, as you cited as an example, isn't a kids movie, but an immersive film with art , characters, and the most poignant and emotional film of the year. And when I went to the midnight showing, not a kid was there, but late teens and adults.

If every movie was like 'Dragons' or 'Toy Story 3,' the Box Office would be overflowing.

Seems likely to me that if all the development energy shifts toward family films, then the likeliest result is that in a year or two we're going to have a huge crop of poorly written, CGI-laden, largely unwatchable family films.

I agree with the film critics at the end of this article. The reason that kids films are doing so well is because they're setting their sights higher. I'm 20 years old, I don't have kids, but I went to see Toy Story 3 last weekend because it looked genuinely funny. I'm also really looking forward to Despicable Me because it looks like a hilarious movie. The problem with the adult films is that they suck. The ones making the kids movies know that they have to make them good enough to bring in the parents, because no parents means no kids. I think what happened after that, especially with the help of the Pixar geniuses, is that the films became SO good that everyone just goes to them now. We can't trust any other genre these days: rom coms are only getting worse (valentine's day), action films are flopping (a-team), comedies just aren't funny (the last fifty adam sandler attempts), and even the superhero franchise is more miss than hit. If Hollywood would just make better movies, it wouldn't matter the genre. Kids aren't the ones who have the money anyway.

As others have said, this is more than a bit premature. Look back at last year, when some of the biggest movies were The Hangover, The Proposal, and Blind Side. All three of those adult-oriented movies retold a familiar tale in one way or another: Nothing new about buddies pulling a drunk in Vegas, or a mismatched couple who fall in love, or a feel good story of a deserving person being helped to reach potential, but thanks to quality writing and acting, the audiences loved them. The key is that word quality; tell a good story, tell it well, and the public will buy tickets. Don't churn out something like Killers that tries to sell itself on nothing more than the strength of Katherine Heigl's appeal and Ashton Kutcher's abs (though those two factors have been enough to save it from flop status).

This is not a trend and it is not part of a cycle. This is what Americans have wanted since movies began and it is about values. Sixty years ago, the vast majority of Americans went to the movies every week and spent a chunk of Saturday there. What they saw reflected their values: America was a great nation, religious figures were respected members of the community, marriage was sacred and so on. That came to an abrupt end in 1968 when Hollywood threw out the Hayes Code. Cursing was permitted, nudity, gore, "mature" themes were all part of films. Overnight we went from "The Sound of Music" to "Rosemary's Baby" and "Midnight Cowboy". The movie-going audience left in droves and hasn't been back since. Movies with good values have always done well. Movies that really push the envelope like "9 1/2 Weeks" bomb. Even non-religious viewers don't want that stuff and they certainly don't want it for their kids/teens. Hollywood is now run by the riff-raff that attended Woodstock and we see films that reflect their values. That's why,for the most part, so few tickets are sold each year.

George Clooney (a Hollywood insider) said that Hollywood is in the business of social change and that film is the medium used to bring it about. America has resisted that change since it would have our nation be conformed to some crappy and lesser European nation.

I think your analysis is wrong. All those adult films aren't flopping because people only want to see family films. Those films are flopping because they are bad films. Last year, "The Hangover" was one of the biggest hits of the year. That was certainly not a family film. Why was it successful? Because it was funny. It was even an overdone storyline, and people still liked it. It was done well.

Also, the reason "Toy Story 3" is so successful (and Pixar films in general) is because they appeal to *more* than just families. I went to a sold out 10pm showing on Friday and there wasn't a single kid in the audience. I actually think this movie appeals *more* to adults than to children. It has an extra layer of storytelling that children don't pick up at all. The people at Pixar say all the time that they focus on story, story, story. These movies for adults you mentioned clearly are not focusing on this.

I'd say Get Him to the Greek will end up being relatively successful. It's already earned more money than Cop Out and is well on it's way to passing Hot Tub Time Machine. In terms of mainstream comedies, it's the best/funniest thing we've got for 2010 (and who do we have to thank but the Apatow factory once again, for pleasing both the brain dead masses and the more discerning movie-watching public at the same time, by keeping subject matter at sort of a middle-brow gray area.)

Toy Story 3 is the best movie of the year. The Karate Kid is a character-driven drama that works better than Iron Man 2, Prince or Persia, and the like. Last year, Up and Star Trek were better, smarter, and more engaging pictures than Public Enemies and Terminator: Salvation. The family films are better written, better directed, and better acted on average than the mainstream teen and adult entertainments (Gerard Butler gave a better, richer performance in How to Train Your Dragon than in The Ugly Truth, Law-Abiding Citizen, or The Bounty Hunter). Without the ability to rely on graphic violence, sexual content, profanity, and/or whatever other kind of 'adult content', family movies know that the only way they can satisfy audiences is if they are good pictures that pay attention to the basics (writing, acting, directing). As always, it's the movie, stupid.

Smart movies= Good
Terrible movies= Bad
The ones that are doing well are good movies. The one that are doing bad are terrible movies. Good job! You guys chose to watch the right movies!

we have to learn the difference between business and art.

Dear Robert,

Adult movies aren't failing because they don't have YOUR phony old values.

The Dark Knight is hardly a family film and how many million did it make just 2 years ago? Get a life.

Nobody is going to see the adult movies that have came out so far because they suck. It's simple as that. This article is terrible and off the mark just like people like Robert who has NO CLUE what he is talking about. Go back to watching The Cleavers Robert.

"If the studios want to lure in older audiences they need merely make better movies. If as much creative integrity, courage and willingness to risk were spent on films for adults as they are on films aimed at younger audiences, then adults would go to the movies."

Overall, that's it. Right on, David.

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