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A STARTLING NEW CONCEPT: : Family Films : With money tight and criticism of sex and violence high, studios are looking closer at PG's power

March 22, 1993|ELAINE DUTKA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Columbia Pictures has revamped its ad campaign for the Bill Murray hit "Groundhog Day," focusing on the cuddly little rodent himself. Twentieth Century Fox is gearing up for animation. Warner Bros. had no family films on its 1992 release slate; this year, it has four.

In Hollywood, PG is in.

"Any smart businessperson can see what we must do," Columbia Pictures Chairman Mark Canton informed the theater exhibitors attending the ShoWest convention earlier this month. During an era of rising production costs, he said, family oriented films give more bang for the buck.

History backs him up. Although greatly outnumbered by R-rated releases, G and PG films have made considerable inroads at the box office. "Aladdin" is the highest-grossing film in Disney history--surpassing such blockbusters as "Pretty Woman" and "Three Men and a Baby." Twentieth Century Fox's "Home Alone" is No. 3 of all-time, after two other family-oriented entries: "E.T." and "Star Wars." The home-video potential, moreover, is equally as great. Of the top-25 consumer video rentals, all but four--three exercise cassettes and the feel-good "Fried Green Tomatoes"--are aimed at the younger set.

Social as well as fiscal factors are feeding the family film trend. Hollywood is being targeted for excessive sex and violence. Recessionary times create a market for uplift and diversion. Equally important, the baby boomers are finally growing up.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 24, 1993 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Column 2 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Family films--Twentieth Century Fox's upcoming film "The Pagemaster" is primarily an animated feature with some live action. In addition, all but 4 of the 25 bestselling videocassettes sold to consumers are family films. A story in Monday Calendar gave incorrect information.

"The audience that worshiped Martin Scorsese and headed for 'Mean Streets' is now living Steve Martin's life in 'Parenthood,' " observes William Morris senior vice president Joan Hyler. "That doesn't mean that they won't be going to the art houses, but as parents they both relate to, and have a need for, a broader range of films."

Producer Mark Johnson ("Rain Man") agrees: "Many filmmakers such as myself waited a long time to start a family or are working on our second one. I'd give my eyeteeth to make a good movie I could present to my kids."

According to David Davis, a film analyst with Paul Kagan Associates, a PG film is more than twice as likely to break the $60-million mark in domestic box-office receipts as its R-rated counterpart. "There is an under-exploited segment in the motion picture industry that could be costing the studios millions of dollars," he concludes.

This comes as no surprise to the Walt Disney Co., which has turned out successful live-action family fare such as "Mary Poppins" and "The Absent-Minded Professor" since the 1950s. Though more recent efforts such as "Newsies" failed to take off, the $12-million "Muppet Christmas Carol" and the $10-million "The Mighty Ducks" pulled in $25 million and $50 million, respectively. It's too early to determine the fate of the African adventure "A Far Off Place" but "Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey" has been in the Top 10 ever since its February release. Walt Disney Pictures, which has more than tripled its output in the past few years, will be serving up "The Adventures of Huck Finn" on April 4.

Disney's track record, acknowledges Bruce Berman, president of worldwide production at Warner Bros., has spurred other studios to follow its lead. Warners will release John Hughes' "Dennis the Menace," "Free Willy" (the story of a boy and a whale) and the children's classic "The Secret Garden" this summer and "The Nutcracker," with Macaulay Culkin, at Christmastime.

"This resurgence of family pictures is no coincidence," he says. "We've begun to realize there's a big audience out there. Kiddie films are no longer seen as movies that adults have to deal with for 75 or 80 minutes. Quality films reaching parents and kids is the primary target."

With this in mind, Columbia paired an 11-year-old boy with Arnold Schwarzenegger in "The Last Action Hero," a summer release. And unlike Schwarzenegger's "Predator" and "Terminator 2," it will carry a PG-13 rating. "Material can be adapted to certain parameters," Canton explains. "Action-adventure doesn't have to be graphic and gory."

Universal is taking a similar tack with "Jurassic Park," Steven Spielberg's costly adaptation of Michael Crichton's dinosaurs-on-the-loose tale. Not only is the anticipated PG-13 rating more in sync with Spielberg's sensibility, it also maximizes the studio's chances of making its money back.

"PG films, if they're good, generally have a greater afterlife," says Bob Dingilian, executive vice president of marketing for MGM, which is releasing its own family film, Robert Townsend's "Meteor Man," an inner-city fairy tale, this year. "Kids love cassettes, so there's a tremendous home video market. The networks and cable are concerned with this demographic, which makes for good TV sales. And since family films are very visual, language is less of a problem. Disney films are enormous overseas."

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