"Reality Bites" executive producer Stacey Sher couldn't have been happier. There she was, buying CDs at Tower Records, and the tousled-haired clerk bagging cassettes behind the counter--the hippest guy in the room--was proudly wearing a "Reality Bites" button on his shirt.
When Sher mentioned she'd been involved with the movie, the Tower clerk exclaimed: "Oh my God, that's so cool! I've listened to the soundtrack about 4,000 times." Then one of his co-workers jumped in. "Hey," she said, "you haven't even seen the movie!"
The clerk shrugged. "Come on, I work at Tower Records. I can't \o7 afford\f7 to go to movies."
Whatever the reason, the Tower clerk, like many of his Generation X brethren, don't seem to be going to the movies the way they used to--at least not to movies about themselves.
Beginning in 1989 with the release of "Heathers" and "sex lies, and videotape," a wide array of young filmmakers have surfaced, making a series of quirky films aimed at the scruffy core of the twentysomething marketplace.
Focused largely on brooding, disillusioned youths absorbed in edgy relationships and turbulent romances, the films have been alternately praised and reviled by critics. Some, like "Kalifornia," were instant bombs. A few lower-budget entries, like "Benny & Joon," turned a modest profit. One classic alienated outsider tale, "Edward Scissorhands," was a major hit.
But none have captured the elusive spirit of a generational moment, as "The Graduate" did for disaffected youth of the late '60s, "Saturday Night Fever" for the self-discovery of the disco era or "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" for the teen anxieties of the early-'80s mall culture.
Buoyed by strong word-of-mouth and what seemed like a picture-perfect marketing campaign, Universal Pictures' "Reality Bites" had the heady scent of a generational impact film when it hit theaters in mid-February.
Its star, Generation X goddess Winona Ryder, graced the cover of Rolling Stone. Details gave its cover to co-star Ethan Hawke. Director and co-star Ben Stiller was everywhere on late-night TV. GQ, Sassy and Vanity Fair did celeb-struck profiles of the film's stars. Time, Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly and The Los Angeles Times weighed in with rave reviews. MTV did a "Big Picture" special edition devoted to the film. Its soundtrack rocketed into the Billboard Top 10.
Even more importantly, "Reality Bites" seemed to catch a pop-culture wave: Newspapers debated its Generation X merits in Op-Ed page stories. Local deejays started obsessively playing "My Sharona," the 1979 teen anthem revived on its soundtrack. Even the New Republic's Michael Kinsley used the movie's portrayal of out-of-work slackers as a hook for a column about the federal deficit.
But despite the hoopla, the $11-million film never caught fire. It is inching toward a gross of $20 million, meaning its modest profits will come from its home-video release.
"It's a little depressing," says Sher. "My crackpot theory is that we made a really good movie for people who can't afford to see it."
Coined by Douglas Coupland in his 1991 novel, "Generation X" is a classic sound-bite catch phrase. Beloved by the media, it is loathed by everyone forced to wear the tag, even if it's no more bogus than previous media convenience labels, including such whoppers as the Beat Generation, the Flower Power Generation and the Me Generation.
According to media and marketing mavens, Generation X-ers are post-baby boomers, a generation born roughly between the Cuban missile crisis and Watergate. They've been depicted--and often depict themselves--as overeducated and underemployed. Cynical and disillusioned. Media savvy and equally media suspicious.
You've seen the snapshot: White middle-class kids raised on junk sitcoms and trashy rock bands who hang out in coffee bars, wear thrift-store threads, smoke Marlboro Lights and save up for Lollapalooza tour tickets.
In reality, this generation is far more culturally diverse, just as likely to harbor a preppy neo-conservative as a grungy slacker. But, like the media, Hollywood goes for the stereotype. For decades, it has viewed rebellious youth as lucrative box-office fodder, supplying a new icon for each generation, from James Dean and Jack Nicholson to John Travolta and Tom Cruise.
As teens in the mid-'80s, Generation X-ers were ardent film consumers, making hits out of such adolescent fantasies as "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," "Risky Business," "Pretty in Pink" and "The Breakfast Club."
But today something seems amiss--both economically and culturally. In an era where every other youth culture trapping is booming--be it MTV, alternative rock, Fox TV, Reebok or the Gap --Hollywood's Generation X movies are, with rare exceptions, underperforming at the box office.