The new comedy in which Kirsten Dunst joins a duel between cheerleader squads may be titled ”Bring It On,” but that’s not what movie audiences have been saying lately about upbeat teen movies. Ticket buyers stayed away in droves from Amy Heckerling’s ”Loser,” ($15.1 million in box office earnings), the Cyrano de Bergerac remake ”Whatever It Takes” ($8.7 million), and two Freddie Prinze Jr. romances: ”Boys and Girls” ($20.6 million) and ”Down to You” ($20 million).
Though a handful of teen films have scored big at the box office this year, the winners have been more edgy than cute, emphasizing either raunchy humor (”Road Trip”) or spooky thrills (”Final Destination”). Still, Dunst, 18, insists that her movie has sleeper potential: ”We break the boundaries. This is about competitiveness and teamwork. We are not doing the same old cliché of ‘Cheerleaders are dumb, let’s make fun of them.”’
As it happens, industry insiders agree with her. Media analyst Robert Bucksbaum of ReelSource predicts that the film will knock Jennifer Lopez’s ”The Cell” out of the top spot this weekend with a healthy $12 million debut. Not only does ”Bring It On” open against competition that skews towards older, male viewers (”Art of War,” ”The Cell,” and ”The Crew”), but ”Universal has finally discovered the key that no other studio has picked up,” says Bucksbaum. ”They’ve learned that for certain smaller movies, if you target a specific audience, in this case teen girls, they’ll start your buzz, and it spreads from there.”
To lure in young female viewers, who make up 30 to 35 percent of all moviegoers, Universal bought plenty of ad time on the WB and MTV and released a can’t-miss soundtrack single, ”As Is” by Blaque and ‘N Sync heartthrob Joey Fatone. The studio also went against standard practice by downplaying the star power of Dunst and partner in cheering Eliza Dushku (”Buffy the Vampire Slayer”). Instead, the movie’s ads and trailers focus mainly on a high stakes battle between the cheerleading teams (captained by Dunst and ”Love & Basketball”’s Gabrielle Union). The interracial rivalry has generated some concern, according to one of the film’s producers. ”Just from the ads people have been calling me wanting to know who wins the competition, especially because it’s between a black team and a white team,” says executive producer Max Wong. ”On some level it’s inflammatory, because no one can figure out how we come to a satisfying ending without being un-PC in some way. So people really want to know.”
To woo teens who loathe the too perfect cheerleading image, the trailer pairs risky acrobatic stunts with a high energy soundtrack. But, even with the miniskirt clad cast members shaking their groove things, the flirty ads have been careful not to overhype the movie’s sex appeal — a mistake, Bucksbaum says, that Buena Vista Pictures made in selling ”Coyote Ugly.” ”Women were turned off to ‘Ugly”s ads because they showed too much skin, and conservative viewers thought it looked too racy,” he says. ”’Bring It On’ has only started lifting the skirts a little higher in the last two weeks. Their target audience is already interested, so now they’re able to point out that there are beautiful girls in the movie.”
Still, there’s one missing ingredient in the campaign: humor. ”My only complaint is that the trailers don’t show how funny the movie is,” producer Wong sighs, noting that most of the movie’s punchlines are throwaways that play better within the context of the story. ”The majority of people who see it say it’s much smarter and funnier than they thought it would be.” And next week we’ll know if she’s just cheerleading.