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Family Films Abound, but Successes Don't : Movies: Studios roll out wholesome films to satisfy the boomer crowd. But except for two Spielberg productions, the only other hits have been Disney's 'Lion King' and 'Angels.'

August 25, 1994|RICHARD NATALE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As sure as fall follows summer, the breakaway success of films such as "Home Alone," "Aladdin" and "Free Willy" was bound to perpetrate a rush of family film projects. And any time Hollywood goes for the gold, there are bound to be contestants that finish dead last.

Over the past two years, virtually every major studio has cranked a live-action or animated project into production, hoping to satisfy the demands of BWKs (boomers with kids) by presenting wholesome, no-violence, no-sex entertainment. The kinds of movies, a new generation of parents said, that are suitable for the entire family.

The demand seemed to make economic sense too. The prospect of appealing to an 8-to-80 demographic, ranging from children to grandparents, spurred studios such as Fox and Warners to institute family film divisions. Visions of limitless synergistic possibilities danced in the heads of studio/theme park conglomerates such as Disney and Universal, who envisioned this year's family film hit as next year's amusement ride, live ice-skating show or maybe even a Broadway musical.

Family films became the next sure thing. The industry joke, says one studio executive, was that hit films could be created simply by phoning Steven Spielberg's mother and asking what his favorite TV shows were as a kid. (Spielberg's company, Amblin, produced the successful family film hits "The Flintstones" and "Little Rascals," released by Universal.)

Well, "surprise, surprise, surprise," says Disney Studios motion pictures President David Hoberman. All family films are not created equal. Just because last year's films "The Sandlot" and "Rookie of the Year" were hits, it didn't guarantee that parents would drag their kids to Columbia's "Little Big League" this summer. In the "Home Alone" series, Macaulay Culkin got plenty of laughs from clobbering clumsy thieves. But it didn't mean audiences would split their sides when he turned the tables on his larcenous father in this summer's MGM film "Getting Even With Dad."

Among the other recent family film flops were "Baby's Day Out," "North," "Lassie" and "Black Beauty." In fact, except for Universal's two Spielberg productions, the only other family films that scored were from Disney--"The Lion King" and "Angels in the Outfield." The upside on family films is impressive, according to one studio senior executive, including endless merchandising and sequel possibilities. "But when they don't work, they don't work at all."

"Little Big League," "Baby's Day Out" and "Getting Even With Dad" grossed well under $20 million. "North," "Lassie" and "Black Beauty" haven't even cracked $10 million. Although these films are supposed to cost less because they rarely include stars, "Baby's Day Out" and "North" reportedly came in at about $50 million and $40 million, respectively. Even on a more modestly budgeted $20-million film such as "Little Big League," when family films lose, they lose it all.

Unlike action films, if a family-entertainment film fails in the United States, it has virtually no chance of being a hit overseas. And you have to add on marketing costs, says the senior studio executive. "If you have a film that reaches different audience segments, you have to advertise to all of them. And that can get to be very expensive."

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The audience's preference in family films is just as exacting and ahead of the Hollywood learning curve as it is for all kinds of movies, industry executives have discovered. Family entertainments are a bit of a trap, says outgoing Imagine Films production head David Friendly. "They look easy to create on the surface, but you have to apply the same rigorous standards, maybe even more rigorous, than with any other film."

Disney, perhaps more than any single studio, has a franchise of creating palatable entertainment for the whole family. Even so, it has to keep one step ahead of its audience at all times, Hoberman says. "Kids still want something they haven't seen before. They don't want to be taken for granted."

For example, the studio's Christmas release "The Jungle Book" is a live-action adventure version of a venerable classic that worked so well for the studio in animated form. This time it will have the additional elements of a young adult (Jason Scott Lee), real animals and a love interest. Another variant will be its upcoming John Hughes production "The Bee," which combines the mayhem of the filmmaker's "Home Alone" movies with some of the fantastical components of "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids."

A major problem has been Hollywood's proclivity to see the forest rather than the trees. The success of "Home Alone" was interpreted as a desire for kids to witness empowerment fantasies, where they get to function as, or outwit, adults.

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