MTV gets in the teen movie business -- The music network capitalizes on its teen grip

By Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
March 12, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

They resent authority figures, hate being pandered to, and change their minds every month about what’s cool. And that’s the good news about teenagers, at least the way MTV Films sees it. Because while other studios stutter about searching for what teens like, MTV Productions president Van Toffler believes, ”We know them better than anyone.” And that knowledge is being translated into a mission: Take a small sum of money, bucketloads of research and music connections, an ability to cross-market, and spin out box office successes.

And riding the most recognizable brand name in the teen universe doesn’t hurt.

”People talk about [the success of] Titanic,” says Sumner Redstone, chairman of Viacom, the parent company of MTV Films, Paramount, VH1, Nickelodeon, and MTV. ”But in terms of long-term growth for Viacom, that pales in comparison to the significance of the MTV and Nickelodeon franchise.”

Maybe, but MTV Films, which was created three years ago and is partnered with big sibling Paramount in the Viacom universe (the studio also distributes Nick’s films), still has a way to go before it sees the kind of numbers Titanic brought in. So far, MTV’s success in film has been spotty. Its first outing, 1996’s Joe’s Apartment, cost $13 million and made only $4.5 million. Also in 1996, Beavis and Butt-head Do America became the company’s first grand-slam winner, with a $63 million box office gross. But that was followed by last summer’s Dead Man on Campus, which pulled in only $15.1 million. And while Varsity Blues is a hit (it cost $14.5 million and has topped $50 million at the box office), the recent 200 Cigarettes, an ensemble ’80s comedy with Christina Ricci and Courtney Love, brought in an underwhelming $3.2 million its opening weekend.

200 Cigarettes is an urban, cosmopolitan movie,” acknowledges MTV Films senior VP David Gale, ”so whether it goes into the heartland or not is a question. But we think it will catch on and is cool. If we make a movie that’s not a big success but that the audience likes and remembers is ours, that’s a good thing.”

”With Varsity, we were looking to make a mainstream movie,” says Gale. ”But,” Toffler adds, ”I don’t think we want to go into [the business] of blockbusters. What should set MTV apart is that we’re willing to take risks and sometimes fail. We don’t want to do normal fare.” Nor is MTV Films catering solely to teens. Its next two movies — the satirical Election, starring Matthew Broderick, and The Wood, a nostalgia piece about childhood friends, with Taye Diggs and Omar Epps — skew toward a somewhat older age group.

MTV’s menu items do have this much in common: mostly fresh (meaning inexpensive) directors and talent. 200 Cigarettes, for example, cost less than $6 million. Also, some marketing comes cheap: While Miramax had to pony up millions to promote She’s All That, MTV can pop on Hole’s latest video and mention Love’s new movie for free. Then there are behind-the-scenes specials, guest appearances, and promos slathered across VH1, MTV, and Nickelodeon. As Redstone says, ”It gives us a great competitive edge.”