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Hey, Mom and Dad Are in the Family Too

After getting burned last year, Hollywood studios are trying to find a broader audience for family films. Think 'Babe.'

May 12, 1996|Judy Brennan | Judy Brennan is a regular contributor to Calendar

If this summer's offerings for the preteen crowd look a little thin, you can start by blaming . . . last summer's offerings. Get past "Pocahontas" and "Babe" and there were disappointments everywhere: from franchises ("Lassie") to book adaptations ("A Little Princess"); from crapshoots ("The Amazing Panda Adventure") to sequels ("Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home"--although Warner Bros. plans a third installment for next summer). And changing demographics have something to do with it, too.

This year, studio executives and exhibitors say, Hollywood wants to target the families of baby boomers. Hence, family fare means movies now targeted for all age groups in a family, and that means movies have to have a much broader appeal than to just the 5- to 12-year-old crowd. (Even at Disney, there will be no chirpy mermaids or cuddly lion cubs this summer; the hero of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" is the disfigured outcast from the dark Victor Hugo novel.)

"And you can expect it to change again in a few years as well," says Chris Meladandri, head of 20th Century Fox's Family Film division--which, by the way, doesn't have a family film in the pack this summer. "The studies that I've looked at show, in the next four to five years, those kids will become teenagers and they will make up the largest bloc of moviegoers in the history of movies. The challenge will be how to appeal to the kid in all of us."

The challenge, says Howard Lichtman, executive vice president of marketing for the Toronto-based theater chain Cineplex Odeon, will be how to make enough movies like "Clueless" and "Wayne's World" to take advantage of that incredible market.

In the meantime, Hollywood has to live with a few years of feeling its way through what the public wants in family movies. This summer, Lichtman says, "the big summer business for kid fare are basically five movies: 'Flipper,' 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame,' 'Matilda,' '[The Adventures of] Pinocchio' and 'Harriet the Spy.' "

Some films that are borderline for the preteen crowd are Eddie Murphy's take on the Jerry Lewis classic "The Nutty Professor;" the sci-fi drama "Independence Day;" "Kazaam," with Shaquille O'Neal as a genie; the special effects-driven fantasy "Dragonheart;" this year's elephant movie, "Larger Than Life," with Bill Murray; "A Very Brady Sequel"; the heist-gone-wrong comedy "Carpool"; the survival drama "Alaska"; and the Tom Arnold comedy "The Stupids." Most of these are geared for those 11 and older, exhibitors say.

"If you look at the pictures, you'll realize that there aren't a lot of pictures out there. It's simply because last summer there was a flood of family films and a number of them just didn't do well despite what anyone will tell you," Lichtman says. 'The message I have been espousing to the studios about family films is that I'm a dad 12 months out of the year, which means I have kids 12 months out of the year who like to see movies. And when it's raining on a weekend in October or snow is falling on my driveway in February, I'm wondering why I can't take them to the theater because all the children's films were released in the summer or at Christmas. And most of them didn't have a chance to stay in theaters, because of the glut of competition.

"Instead of scaling back so much on family films, especially for the preteen crowd, just because last summer didn't work, studios should consider spreading them out over the year," he adds. "Studios wouldn't have to deal with the overcrowding at one particular time and some of their films might not end up as box-office bombs."

The reason studios release so much family fare in the summer is because children are out of school with plenty of free time on their hands.

And that's unlikely to change, says Larry Gleason, head of distribution for MGM/UA, which released last year's flop "Fluke." "But I do think we are now taking a much broader look at the genre. Now the approach is to make movies that appeal to all ages in a family . . . to films that everyone in the family can enjoy together." This year, he hopes that philosophy works with MGM/UA's comedy "Larger Than Life," to be released July 19.

Simply put, Fox's head of distribution Tom Sherak says, "Today's family movies are no longer about kid movies. It's about families. And let's just hope we're right."

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