24 Frames

Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Teens

'The Hunger Games:' Five lessons from its box-office success

March 26, 2012 |  7:00 am

"The Hunger Games," starring Jennifer Lawrence and directed by Gary Ross, grossed $155 million at the box office this weekend while earning strong reviews

We all knew Jennifer Lawrence's "The Hunger Games" would be big. But if you actually guessed $155 million in domestic receipts in the office pool, we can only imagine how well you're doing in your March Madness brackets.

So with the film's massive opening -- the third-biggest ever and the biggest ever for a non-sequel, discounting inflation -- what nuggets are glean-able from the popularity of the Suzanne Collins adaptation? A partial rundown:

Literacy rates. As film source material goes, novels' stock has been dropping faster than Duke's title chances did in the NCAA men's basketball tournament this year. Toys, games and sequels of long-dormant properties have in recent years been considered the way to go if you wanted a big hit. But a bestselling book is, perhaps more than ever, the strongest marketing tool a studio can have. Any doubters need only look at the box-office chart: With "The Hunger Games," four of the top six opening weekends in history come from books.

PHOTOS: Meet the main cast of 'The Hunger Games'

The indie effect. The Sundance and mainstream film worlds have been diverging more than intersecting lately -- just look at all the flops that came out of the 2011 crop. It takes a long time for movies, and actors, to make the winding journey from indieville to Hollywood success, if they make it at all. But "The Hunger Games" offers a counter-argument: Just two years ago at Sundance, the two biggest breakouts were "Winter’s Bone" and "The Kids Are All Right." They starred -- and catapulted to success -- two total unknowns by the name of Jennifer Lawrence and Joshua Hutcherson.

Director's paradise. In the post-Christopher Nolan era, there's a lot of attention paid to who producers of a major franchise hire to direct their film. And let's face it: Gary Ross wasn't exactly a hot commodity coming in to "The Hunger Games." In fact, he hadn't directed a movie in nearly a decade. Yet with the teen action pic, he made a movie that not was only a mega-blockbuster but garnered solid reviews (71% positive, according to Movie Review Intelligence).

Kids will be kids. Sure, you could make a tidy sum by selling a movie about kids to kids. But will adults see a youth-oriented film not named "Harry Potter"? If there are some pleasures and themes for them, it turns out they will. Though "The Hunger Games" is about teenagers and is a property devoured by same, more than half the audience for the Lionsgate film this weekend was above the age of 25.

Things look better in 3-D? Perhaps the biggest rebuttal this weekend to a piece of conventional wisdom. For the last few years, the thinking has gone that the gloss of 3-D -- not to mention the higher ticket prices -- was the way to really profit from a movie. But "The Hunger Games" had the biggest-ever opening for a non-sequel by telling its story in good old-fashioned 2-D.


Movie review: "The Hunger Games"

"Hunger Games": Jennifer Lawrence reaps praise from critics

Box Office: "Hunger Games" beats record with $155-million opening weekend

--Steven Zeitchik

Photo: Jennifer Lawrence in "The Hunger Games." Credit: Lionsgate

Selena Gomez starts to move away from her Disney roots -- sort of

June 14, 2011 | 12:59 pm

Reutersfredprouser Over the weekend, the Twitterverse flew into a frenzy when teen star Selena Gomez fell ill.

After reportedly complaining of a severe headache and nausea, the 18-year-old checked into a hospital and was forced to cancel a Friday appearance at Santa Monica Place to promote her upcoming film "Monte Carlo." That event was rescheduled for Monday, when several thousand of the actress-singer's wide-eyed fans packed the space outside the mall for a concert, which lasted all of about 20 minutes.

Immediately upon her arrival, Gomez reassured everyone she was back in good health. 

"I'm fine. I was just very malnourished, I was low in iron and exhausted," she explained (in a video you can watch here) to a group of print reporters, with whom she spoke for a minute before bounding on stage. There, she sang two songs and then answered about five questions that had been pre-submitted for her through a website.

Meanwhile, a slew of prepubescent girls lined up to get "royal makeovers" while others waited to get their photos snapped in front of a special movie-themed backdrop.

The event was aimed at promoting "Monte Carlo," which comes out July 1 and stars Gomez as a young woman on vacation in Paris, where she is confused for a British heiress (which sounds like, um, a few of those other teen movies where a girl heads to Europe to find her identity).

Gomez will offer a version of this routine on a nine-city tour meant to drum up ticket sales for "Monte Carlo." The movie is the first feature being sold primarily on her name. (Last summer, Gomez had the supporting role in "Ramona and Beezus," a movie based on author Beverly Cleary's popular children's novels. The movie wasn't a hit, bringing in a modest $26.2 million in the U.S.)

At the time of "Ramona," Gomez said she was planning her post-Disney Channel career carefully: First take on a smaller role in a kid-friendly film so she doesn't alienate her fan base, and then try to tap into a slightly older teen audience.

"It was the perfect way for me to go into a little bit more PG-13 and not do anything rated R -- anything crazy," she said of "Monte Carlo" while conducting an interview last summer. (The film is actually rated PG.) "It was the perfect kind of push to where families could go see it, but also a bunch of teens or people in their 20s could go see it for a light romantic comedy."

In her personal life, Gomez is starting to mature, if recent racy photos of her and Justin Bieber are any indication. On screen she'll only begin to branch out next year, when she's signed on to star in the more weighty drama "13 Reasons Why," about a girl who commits suicide. But if Monday's well-managed event is any indication, Gomez isn't ready to stray too far from the Disney script just yet.


Selena Gomez hospitalized, Santa Monica appearance canceled

The Performance: Selena Gomez

With 'Ramona and Beezus,' can Selena Gomez branch out from her Disney Channel roots?

--Amy Kaufman


Photo: Selena Gomez performs at Santa Monica Place on Monday. Credit: Fred Prouser/Reuters.

Frame Grab: 'Super 8' star Joel Courtney's small-town charms

June 13, 2011 |  4:00 am

Sometimes that actor playing the wide-eyed innocent is nothing like his character. And sometimes, as in the case of "Super 8" lead Joel Courtney, he's pretty much the same way in real life.

Courtney stars as Joe Lamb, a model-building movie lover who has recently lost his mom, in J.J. Abrams' new coming-of-age movie that was a hit with audiences over the weekend. With a wide-eyed vulnerability and a quiet composure, Courtney's character gives viewers of the Steven Spielberg-produced movie someone to rally behind. 

In real life, the polite 15-year-old has the same unprepossessing manner, with none of the flippancy or attitude you might expect from an adolescent -- let alone an adolescent who has spent the past year working with some of the most famous filmmakers on the planet.

Courtney, who had never before acted in anything more than a school play, sounded a concerned and slightly earnest note about the 5,000 other teens he beat out for the part.  "I feel bad -- a lot of kids had a lot more experience than me," he said by phone Saturday from his home in Moscow, Idaho.

Like the Ohio town of the film, Moscow is a decidedly small place. The largest nearby city is Spokane, Wash., a two-hour drive away, and there's little in the way of Hollywood accouterments. Courtney and his family attended the film's premiere in Westwood on Wednesday evening, then went back to Idaho and spent opening night watching the movie at one of Moscow's two small movie theaters.

"A lot of people from my school and church were there," said the teen, the youngest of four siblings who's about to start his freshman year of high school. But his classmates and fellow churchgoers didn't give him a hard time about his newfound Hollywood status, or mention it at all, really. "They let us leave all that down in L.A.," he said.

Courtney's odyssey to the silver screen began when he came to Los Angeles last summer to visit his 19-year-old brother, Caleb, who has acted in independent films. Joel had modest ambitions. "I just wanted to make $100 on a commercial," he recalled.

Instead, at the suggestion of a Seattle acting coach he and his siblings had previously worked with, Courtney found himself at a nationwide casting call for the lead role in Abrams' film. After an audition in which Courtney was asked to read fake scenes from the movie (Abrams and Spielberg are very keen on secrecy), casting agents and filmmakers called him back 11 times. When he finally got to the set -- the film shot in West Virginia in the early fall, which meant some time off from school -- Courtney admits he found himself a bit confused.

Continue reading »

A 'Father Knows Best' movie, by way of 'Baby Mama'

April 14, 2011 |  3:23 pm


EXCLUSIVE: "Father Knows Best" may seem like a paragon of 1950s Americana, but Fox-based production company New Regency believes there's an update to be found in the classic sitcom.

The firm has been developing a new version of the story for the big screen. Now producers are set to bring on Michael McCullers, director of "Baby Mama," to write a new draft and direct the updated version of the comedy, according to a person who was briefed on the production but not authorized to speak about it publicly. A Fox spokeswoman declined to comment.

When the project was first announced, news accounts described it as telling a multi-generational story about a father of a suburban family with a modern parenting approach who's thrown for a loop when his own father, with a different attitude, comes to live with them. (The debate, then, is over which father knows best.) The film is expected to look at the evolving nature of the American family the way the initial television series did with an emerging suburban middle class more than half a century ago.

McCullers' previous work, of course, deals with another parenting issue -- surrogate motherhood -- though it also engages in questions of modern parenthood. The director is also a "Saturday Night Live" veteran who wrote several of the "Austin Powers" movies.

The original "Father Knows Best" began as a radio program in 1949 and morphed into a television series that ran from 1954 to 1960, starring Robert Young and Jane Wyatt. It told of the Andersons, an idyllic family (two parents, three children) in which Dad, an insurance agent, patiently offers sage advice that nearly always helps his children.

The on-screen Midwestern family has been updated and updated over the years with families that are somewhat less than perfect, from "Roseanne" and "Married ... With Children" 20 years ago to ABC's current dysfunctional-family comedy "The Middle."

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: "Father Knows Best." Credit: Screen Gems / Kobal Collection

Young-adult sensation 'The Maze Runner' gets ready to run the movie gantlet [Updated]

January 4, 2011 |  2:03 pm

Fans of young-adult fiction -- or anyone with young adults in their lives -- probably are familiar with "The Maze Runner," James Dashner's fantasy tale.

The first book in Dashner's planned trilogy -- about a group of boys, and one girl, who are trapped in an alternative universe called The Glade and must navigate an entity known as The Maze to escape -- has been on the New York Times paperback bestseller list for nearly three months after coming out in hardcover in the fall of 2009. The second book, "The Scorch Trials," was released this past fall and has just completed a one-month run on the newspaper's hardcover list.

MazeruLike Suzanne Collins' ultra-popular "The Hunger Games" novels and other young-adult publishing phenomena, Dashner's books use genre conventions to explore the vagaries of growing up. And like "Hunger Games," Dasher's stories are poised to make the leap to the big screen.

A film version is set up at Fox, and "Twilight" director Catherine Hardwicke signed on a month ago to direct the adaptation. Now a source close to the film says the project has hired a screenwriter, and he's an interesting choice: Noah Oppenheim. 

Although he's not written any young-adult films to date, Oppenheim has some A-list credits. A former "Today" show producer, he's writing the  English-language version of the Swedish thriller "Snabba Cash" for Zac Efron. He also created a stir when his story about Jackie Kennedy in the aftermath of the JFK assassination, set up at Fox Searchlight, caught the eye of Steven Spielberg.

Of course, it's not easy taking a young-adult publishing hit and turning it into a successful movie, something that movies such as "Lemony Snicket" and "The Golden Compass" learned the hard way. Studios these days want to know there's not only a built-in fan base but a viable way to tell the stories cinematically (and on a reasonable budget).

Then again, studios these days also can't resist a franchise...

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: The Maze Runner. Credit: Delacorte Books


Zac Efron, Jackie Kennedy and a Swedish phenomenon get linked

[For the record, 12:10 p.m: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said the story about Jackie Kennedy in the aftermath of the JFK assassination was set up at HBO.]


Can Disney capture the life of the modern teenager?

April 23, 2010 |  1:57 pm

In the six months since Disney Channel chief Rich Ross took over the movie studio, it's been a bit of a Hollywood parlor game trying to discern exactly what kind of movies Disney wants to make. We know Ross and his production chief, Sean Bailey, don't want adventures that are either too expensive or too dark, which is the reason Ross scrapped the previously hot "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." And he wasn't especially fond of comedy sequels, or at least ones involving bikers and/or stars who cost too much, which is why "Wild Hogs 2" went the way of the Softail Deuce.

On Thursday, Ross, Bailey and other Disney executives held an up-front of sorts and revealed some of the projects that he and his team have made priorities. According to our LAT colleagues Claudia Eller and Dawn Chmielewski, who made it over to the presentation, a "Monsters, Inc." sequel is set for the summer of 2012,  a new Pixar project called "Brave" is in the works, the fourth "Pirates of the Caribbean" is set to start shooting and a greenlight is imminent for a new "Muppets" movie.

It's mostly titles we knew about before or could have guessed they'd be doing. But amidst the familiar, one movie did stand out: Ross mentioned a teen comedy, "Prom," which, though it had been in development, wasn't thought to be much of a priority.

"Honest and authentic," is how Ross described the story of a group of high-schoolers just before the big dance, saying that the film would hark back to the vintage films of Cameron Crowe and John Hughes.  Joe Nussbaum, who has some "American Pie" video experience under his belt and also is emerging as a go-to filmmaker for movies about growing up, is directing. 

Citing Hughes and Crowe in reference to any modern movie carries an air of grandiosity, but it's also noble.  That era evokes thoughts of movies that were funny, well-made, culturally relevant and made a nice chunk of change to boot.

But can Disney make a movie like that work? Producing a poignant but still commercial film about high school is a difficult trick for any studio to pull off these days.  Most contemporary teenagers see movies about people who are a little older, and even then their preferences lie in the realm of fantasy, a la "Twilight," or melodrama, a la "Dear John," or Disney's own attempt at same with the recent Miley Cyrus romance "Last Song".  When these movies do go for any dramatic-comedy realism, it's usually with a healthy dose of Judd Apatow-esque raunch.

The fact that no one's doing quite these kinds of films is of course why Ross thinks he can;   when there's a hole in the market, someone is always quick to jump into it. But this is an especially difficult task for Disney, which has specialized in capturing a grade-school and tween audience in recent years. As one questioner noted Thursday, "Prom" raises the raunch issue; Disney isn't exactly prepared to go all Apatow on its audience. (Indeed, Ross was quick to point out that there will be little that's racy in "Prom.") But in eliding the more risque elements, Disney could risk a different problem -- namely, seeming out of touch with the more frankly sexual way that high-schoolers live today. You can try to keep it Disney-clean, and you can try to make an authentic teenage movie, but you may not be able to do both.

Ross isn't new to all this, of course. He has made numerous attempts to capture the teenage when, in his previous guise, he shepherded development on a number of Disney Channel shows. Some of those, at least, were able to depict the high-school experience without resorting to cheap sentiment or easy genre metaphor. It's unlikely that Disney will be creating the new Ferris Bueller, but we just might settle for an elevated Lizzie McGuire.

-- Steven Zeitchik

(Follow me on Twitter.)

Photo: Miley Cyrus in "Hannah Montana." Credit: The Disney Channel.


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