The success of films like ''The Matrix'' and ''Varsity Blues'' alert studio execs to the new power players

By Jeff Jensen
Updated May 07, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Remember how dazed and confused Keanu Reeves looked when confronted with the loopy realities of The Matrix? Take a look at studio suits scratching their heads over spring box office returns and you may see the same bewildered expression. An allegedly washed-up Reeves regained his cred in — whoa! — an intellectual special-effects extravaganza. The combined might of Clint Eastwood, Nicolas Cage, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Sharon Stone couldn’t equal the marketing moxie of Freddie Prinze Jr. and James Van Der Beek. What warped wonderland have we tumbled into?

Yet this is the reality when you don’t use birth control: This spring, the baby boom of the late ’70s and early ’80s came of age and spawned a booming teen movie market. Such low-budget fare as She’s All That (with Prinze), Varsity Blues (with Van Der Beek), Cruel Intentions (with Sarah Michelle Gellar), Never Been Kissed (with Drew Barrymore), and 10 Things I Hate About You (with Julia Stiles) all promise to fatten their producers’ bottom lines. At the same time, Hollywood is holding those rotten teens accountable for the failure of such adults-only duds as Eastwood’s True Crime, Cage’s Eight Millimeter, Pfeiffer’s The Deep End of the Ocean, and Stone’s Gloria. Moviegoers are ”getting younger and younger,” says Tom Sherak, senior exec VP of Fox Filmed Entertainment. ”A lot of the movies that aren’t for [younger audiences] aren’t going to work.”

In the past four months, Hollywood has learned a few valuable lessons about this powerful demographic. For one, the teen population (70 million and growing) is big enough to send a film with untested talent into jackpot city; MTV Films’ Varsity Blues and Warner Bros.’ Message in a Bottle have both grossed around $53 million — but guess which studio will see profits first (hint: one didn’t have to pay Kevin Costner). And when it comes to teens, concept is key. 200 Cigarettes disappointed, says Van Toffler, president of MTV Productions, because ”it was set in 1981…it’s tough for someone who’s 17 to relate to something that doesn’t resonate with their times and issues.” Ditto The Mod Squad. MGM thought what worked for the teens of the early ’70s could work again. But it chose to gussy up the franchise with Trainspotting seed and grunge just as the market trended toward She’s All That sugar and pop. ”We misread it,” says Larry Gleason, MGM’s president of worldwide distribution. ”Apparently, not everyone is aspiring to be a juvenile delinquent who’s given the choice of going to jail or becoming an undercover cop.”

Would it have helped if The Mod Squad was, like, good? Not necessarily. This spring offered more evidence of one hard fact about adolescents: ”They don’t read reviews,” Sherak says bluntly. Hence, teens passed on critical faves Rushmore and Go, despite youthful subject matter. In truth, they were art films — though that audience passed too, thinking the movies were made for teens. ”Go got caught between two audiences,” admits Jeff Blake, president of Sony Pictures Releasing. ”It’s hard to resist the easy sell to teens; they’re such an available audience. You really have to work to grow beyond it.”

Varsity Blues

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