In the beginning there was Scream. And Scream begat Kevin Williamson. And Williamson begat Scream 2, Dawson’s Creek, and Katie Holmes. Which, in turn, begat an overwhelming flood of teen movies and TV shows and magazine covers. And — until now — it was good. But three years P.S. (post-Scream), strange things are afoot. In theaters, teen tantalizers like Melissa Joan Hart’s Drive Me Crazy and Claire Danes’ Brokedown Palace woefully underperformed. On the tube, NBC’s Freaks and Geeks is a ratings loser, and Williamson’s ABC drama Wasteland has pretty much lived up to its title in the Nielsens. Dare we say it? The teen boom is showing signs of age.
But don’t worry: Hollywood abhors a vacuum. This fall a hot new demographic has emerged: women. Adult women. Women refreshingly far from puberty. ”To crib a line from Fatal Attraction,” says Paul Dergarabedian of the box office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations, ”this is an audience that will not be ignored.”
Consider this: On TV, no less than three new dramas aimed at over-30 females — ABC’s Once and Again and CBS’ Judging Amy and Family Law — have landed in the top 20. At the box office, the biggest shocker of the season has been Ashley Judd’s whack-your-husband movie Double Jeopardy, which has netted more than $80 million thus far. Almost as surprising, the Bruce Willis-Michelle Pfeiffer ”chick flick” The Story of Us nearly beat the hugely hyped young-male thriller Fight Club, with Brad Pitt and Edward Norton (the final tally: $9.7 million to $11 million).
Of course, it’s not like teens suddenly up and vanished, and adult women spontaneously generated. Rather, it’s a simple case of teen-market oversaturation coupled with a scarcity (until recently) of female-friendly entertainment.
”The [women’s] audience has been there, but for a long time they have not been addressed,” says Judging Amy exec producer Barbara Hall, who blames the situation partly on the lack of female producers. ”The minute women see something even remotely like what their own lives are like, they will come out in force.” Echoes Anne Kenney, cocreator of Family Law: ”At the start of this season, it was ‘Kids! Kids! Kids!’ Now everyone is talking about older women.”
And they’ll likely keep talking about them. First of all, it’s smart business: Though advertisers love the malleable whippersnappers, they also have a soft spot for women 18 to 49. ”By and large, it’s the females in the house that do the shopping, so they’re very desirable,” says Tom Watson, vice president of Western International Media. And in the clone-happy world of TV, the women’s movement can only grow. ”There’ll be network people saying ‘Why aren’t we doing more of this?”’ predicts Family Law exec producer Paul Haggis. ”Just like what happened with Friends.”
Meanwhile, the big screen is also experiencing the revenge of the mature woman. ”Movie admissions have been increasingly driven by a growing older audience,” says industry analyst David Davis of the consulting firm Houlihan, Lokey, Howard & Zukin. ”This graying boomer population has a lot of cultural power, and women are a key component.” Take the curious case of The Story of Us, which analysts say may KO Fight Club in the long run. ”A picture like [The Story of Us] tends to have stronger legs,” says Philip Garfinkle of the box-office-analyst firm AC Nielsen EDI. ”Older-skewing audiences don’t feel the urgent need to go that first week.”
And as the Ms. demo becomes the niche du jour, look for Hollywood to cool down on its teen crush. In fact, the orgy of pubescent shows on the fall schedule has already started to shoot blanks. Though a handful are, like, catching on (The WB’s Roswell), many others are lost in the shuffle (The WB’s Popular). The WB “filled a need in the marketplace, and everybody followed suit,” says Nina Tassler, senior VP of dramatic-series development at CBS. “As a result, we may have reached a glut of shows that are just teen ensembles without having a sense of themselves.”
Besides, the fickle Clearasil set has websites to surf. Teens “watch less television — so you’re swimming upstream,” says Tim Spengler of Western International Media. Adds Chris Geraci of BBDO: “The [teen] audience changes its viewership patterns almost as often as its fashion.” And we all know what happened to acid-washed jeans.
(Additional reporting by Will Lee and Corey Takahashi)