Teens Shun Gross-out Movie Genre

July 15, 2001 | By Neil Howe, William Strauss

Teenagers. They can rebel in ways you’re not expecting, ways that can cost you serious money if you’re in the movie biz.

Set on their current path by the successes, not so long ago, of “There’s Something About Mary,” “American Pie,” “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” and “Scary Movie,” filmmakers thought they’d found the ideal formula to attract teens: just pile on the gross-outs and vulgarities.

Then something happened. The nasty teen-movie genre started flopping. Today’s kids just aren’t buying tickets like before. Tom Green and the Farrelly brothers have taken a nosedive. “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch II” fell flat. Teens shied away from the incest themes in “Say It Isn’t So” and “Joe Dirt.” R-rated movies like “The Mexican” and “Angel Eyes” lagged way below expectations, mainly because teens under 17 stayed away. A new MarketCast study revealed that teens aren’t sneaking into R-rated flicks the way they did just a year or two ago. Why aren’t these new kids flocking to see what Hollywood is staging for them? It’s not about economics: They’ve got plenty of money. Is it true, as many in Hollywood might like to believe, that puritanical social forces are conspiring to deny teens what they really want? Don’t bet on it.

To find clues, teen film gurus—these days, mostly Gen-Xers—might look in a mirror, notice a few wrinkles and paraphrase the question made famous three generations ago in “Bye Bye Birdie:” “Why can’t they be like we were, edgy in every way; oh, what’s the matter with kids today?”

Maybe “kids today” are starting to break away from the past, much as boomers did in the middle 1960s and Gen-Xers in the early 1980s. At such moments, teen movies say about as much about the desires of real teens as the giggly Frankie Avalon-Annette Funicello beach movies said about the future life direction of the nodding young baby boomers who watched them in the early ‘60s. Next to nothing, in other words.

Gen-X filmmakers think they’re new, hip, out-of-the-box thinkers, but it’s time they face some facts: When it comes to teen flicks, Gen X is no longer new, its style is post-hip, and the box has moved. Most scriptwriters range in age from their late 20s to their late 30s, which is somewhere on the far side of the moon in the eyes of teenagers. People in that age group seldom have teens as siblings, children or social friends, so when they write, direct or perform these scripts, their frame of reference is dated. They’re writing for the teens they were, not the teens of today.

A dated formula, like today’s gross-out film genre, can only work for so long. Teens will keep coming for a while, mainly out of curiosity. (Many boomers sheepishly admit to having bought tickets for “Beach Blanket Bingo.”) But, eventually, they’ll turn away. And, once they do, there’s no turning back.

Here is one fact producers would do well to face: A new generation is rising. The Millennial Generation. Starting next year, half of all college students will be Millennials. They’re a social and cultural tsunami, no less than boomers were 40 years ago, but their wave is heading in a very different direction.

If producers want evidence, they should consider this: The cutting edge of new pop music consumers is age 13 to 15, while the cutting edge of new moviegoers is age 17 to 19. That’s a four-year time gap. Four years ago, sales of older and edgier styles—grunge, death metal, alternative, gangsta rap—suddenly plummeted. A year later, the new phenoms were the upbeat and synthetic “boy band” and “cover girl” sound, from ‘N Sync to Britney Spears. Many music-makers dismissed the rising “O-town” trend, but a few invested in it. Guess which ones are prospering now?

Hollywood, wake up and smell the double mocha latte. Today’s teens aren’t Gen-X. They’re not like you. Not even close. And the kids coming along behind them, now in middle school, are even less like you.

Millennials are the grown-up kids of “Barney” (not “Sesame Street”), of soccer moms (not latchkeys), of “Have you hugged your child today?” bumper stickers (not “We’re spending our children’s inheritance”), of “Where do you want to go today?” ads (not “This is your brain on drugs”). They like action-packed adventure in which good triumphs over evil (Harry Potter books) and are less likely to go for feelings and healings (Judy Blume books).

Today’s Millennial teens experienced a very different kind of upbringing than Xers. They’ve been protected, treasured, prodded to achieve. Whole new genres of books, cartoons, movies, museums and school curricula have been created for them. Movies, too. When they were small, back in the mid-1980s, filmmakers began shunning the evil-kid genre so popular through the Gen-X childhood (from “Rosemary’s Baby” to “The Exorcist” to “The Omen” to “Bugsy Malone”—it’s a very long list) and replacing them with sweet-child movies (“Parenthood,” “Baby Boom,” “Three Men and a Baby,” “Angels in the Outfield”—also a very long list).

Crotch-jokers beware: This new generation is more modest than most people think. Fully two-thirds of high-achieving high school students say that explicit sexual programming on TV is offensive to some degree. Go to a health club, a beach club, anywhere people of different ages change clothes. Who do you see changing quickly in the corner? Teens. Who prances around naked? Fifty-year-olds. Back in the 1960s, teenagers reveled in nudity: Fifty-year-olds did not.

So what kinds of movies are winning with Millennial teens and middle-schoolers? Action-oriented movies with bushels of slapstick fun and uplifting finales (“The Emperor’s New Groove,” “Shrek”) or with heroic, positive depictions of young people (“Spy Kids,” “Pearl Harbor”). Just look at the biggest teen money-makers expected later this year—from “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” and “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” to “Harry Potter” and sequels to “The Matrix.” Plenty of laughs and gasps, but hardly an embarrassed snicker in the bunch.

Millennials love scripted jokes and staged pratfalls, not free-form wit and sarcastic commentary. They’re “George of the Jungle,” not “Ghostbusters.” In their own theater projects, they go for big productions, elaborate sets, synchronized choreography, tight harmonies—exactly the opposite of where boomers were going at that age, back in the ‘60s.

Millennials like stories that are about something important, something epic. Stories about real people doing things, not phony people hyping things. Introspection is dispensable, and violence or stereotypes are acceptable to move the action along. But like the viewers of “Dawson’s Creek,” with its SAT-prep vocabulary, Millennials gravitate to producers who respect their intelligence. Any adult skeptical of their prodigious appetite for left-brained complexity is hereby required to challenge a 4th grader to a Pokemon contest. “Dumb and Dumber” is out. Smart and Smarter is a better bet.

Every year, Millennials get another year older. Now they’ve filled the high school ranks and are flooding into college, where they will soon emerge as the major movie market. Films they dislike will flop. Hard.

It won’t be long before some producer and director achieve fame and fortune by making the next generation-defining movie—which will be for Millennials what “The Graduate” was for boomers and “Breakfast Club” was for Xers. What will this movie be like? Here’s one easy bet: It will be something fresh and creative, something that captures this rising generation.

Connections