Teensploitation comes to town
Today, class, we’re going to learn a new word.
The word is teensploitation.
Here’s the first definition: a new movie genre catering to a new generation of teenagers. Like the blaxploitation movies of the early 1970s, teensploitation flicks cater to a demographic who feel ignored by the mainstream; who can be had on the cheap, as long as they’re reflected vividly on screen; and who will reward the right stuff at the box office, if you meet their demands.
In Hollywood, however, the word is also synonymous with money — small budgets with potentially mammoth profit margins. At a cost of just $8 million (plus $15 million to market), the teenage comedy She’s All That has pulled in $54 million. That’s why movie studios are going back to high school. Big time. The genre has already produced a pack of new movie stars (see our helpful supplementary study guide on page 28). And so far this year, Hollywood has released a teen movie almost every week (including Varsity Blues, a touchdown starring Dawson’s Creek‘s James Van Der Beek). There are plenty more on the way. This month alone, five major studio releases are skewing young: the down-and-dirty Cruel Intentions; the sci-fi Wing Commander; The Rage: Carrie 2; an update of The Mod Squad; and the Taming of the Shrew-inspired 10 Things I Hate About You.
The teensploitation genre was inevitable, given the baby boom of the 1980s and early 1990s. With allowances enriched by a healthy economy, these Echo Boomers (as they’ve been labeled) grew up and made themselves heard in 1997, most loudly on the ticket lines outside Scream, an inexpensive horror spoof that shocked Hollywood by crossing the $100 million mark. The success of the WB network, with its lineup of youth-oriented dramas, wasn’t lost on movie producers, either. So, like seniors cramming for final exams, execs brushed up on Generation Y demos and realized (cut to lightbulbs overhead and dollar signs in eyes) that this group of potential ticket buyers is more than 70 million strong and growing.
”As wide releases go, [teen films] are the best bet right now,” says Mark Gill, president of Miramax/L.A., the studio that made its name with high-end Oscar contenders (including this year’s Shakespeare in Love and Life Is Beautiful) but has enhanced its bottom line with Scream and She’s All That. The best bet? Perhaps. Sure bet? As if. For example, this year’s Simply Irresistible starred teenagers’ favorite stake driver, Sarah Michelle Gellar (TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer), but the movie proved resistible to her audience. 200 Cigarettes had a rather stinky opening, despite a star-studded ensemble including Courtney Love and Christina Ricci. What happened? To ace the box office test, here are the rules of the game.
Teens like a good, like, story. She’s All That succeeded by employing the storytelling expertise of George Bernard Shaw; it’s an update of Pygmalion, with the most popular guy in high school (Freddie Prinze Jr.) setting out to reconfigure the geekiest girl (Rachael Leigh Cook). ”The story was fairly classic, and the dialogue didn’t feel forced,” says one of its producers, Peter Abrams. ”It’s a story that would work in any decade.” Likewise, Varsity Blues basically added a dose of cynicism — a hallmark of the new genre — to the All the Right Moves formula. Cruel Intentions stars Gellar and Ryan Phillippe (54) in a high school rendition of the classic tale of sexual treachery, Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Go — a Sundance fave being released with high hopes by Columbia Pictures on April 9 — is reminiscent of Pulp Fiction. Note: None of these films is set in the past, which may have been the mistake made by 200 Cigarettes. A nostalgia piece without Adam Sandler (The Wedding Singer) is just a nostalgia piece.