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The Teen Factor

Today's media-savvy youths influence what others are seeing and hearing.


Hollywood has come bearing gifts: young heartthrobs, hip-hop soundtracks, wisecracking adolescent characters. But its object of affection--America's ballooning population of teenagers--has mixed feelings about all the attention.

"I think a lot of people ignore it," said Katie Rosen, 16, of Westchester. "It's so. . . . They're going about it all wrong."

Nevertheless, Rosen went to see the popular slasher parody film "Scream" and its sequel. "I liked those--they were different," she said. "They were just fun. It wasn't too heavy. It was mocking and sarcastic. And the cast was relatively my age." She's even tuned in to WB's high school soap opera "Dawson's Creek" on occasion. "It catches you," she said. "But it's so unrealistic."

Rosen's thoughts are fairly typical of teens interviewed from across Southern California. They're media-savvy. They want to discover the Next Big Thing, not be told what it is. They'll criticize their depiction on TV and film as unrealistic or stereotypical.

Still, they turn out and tune in in droves.

For the first time since the 1970s, the teen tide is rising. There are 31 million teens in the United States these days, most of them the children of the last great population wave, the baby boomers. That number will grow to 35 million by 2010. With the greater numbers comes greater influence. More than pop culture barometers, teenagers are on their way to becoming America's cultural arbiters.

Just since the success of "Scream" 18 months ago, Hollywood has put dozens of high school-themed projects in the pipeline. Networks are adding shows with teen appeal to their fall lineups based on the popularity of programs such as "Dawson's Creek," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Party of Five." And teens' love of the danceable and hummable has run albums by the Aquas, Mace and Usher up the music charts.

For movies, that means a return to the high school comedy, unseen in these parts since Molly Ringwald passed through puberty. The first such project to reach the screen is "Can't Hardly Wait," which opens Friday. Set at a high school graduation party, it stars Jennifer Love Hewitt of "Party of Five" and Ethan Embry, who was in the recent indie "Dancer, Tex."

Nicole Delaney, 15, a freshman at Capistrano Valley High School in Orange County, can't hardly wait to see it. Embry, whom she saw in "Empire Records," is her new favorite actor.

"It used to be Leonardo DiCaprio, but then everyone decided to like him, so I don't like him anymore. . . . I went to school and all the eighth-graders and junior high kids started to like him too. Oh, what a turnoff." That doesn't mean, however, that she's taken the "Titanic" and "Romeo + Juliet" posters down from her wall yet.

Delaney hits the movie theater nearly every weekend, usually while hanging out at the Irvine Spectrum, the entertainment center that attracts bored Orange County teenagers like moths to a flame. Here, at least until the 10 p.m. curfew, hundreds of teens mill around in front of the multiplex, talking with friends, flirting awkwardly. After 10, they disappear into the theater or the video arcade, keeping a low profile away from Spectrum security.

Sitting in the food court, three 15-year-old boys from Laguna Niguel recover from a double feature of "Godzilla" and "Bulworth." They report seeing one or two movies every weekend, because, well, it's something to do.

"We see them even though we know they're going to be bad," Alan Anders said.

Today's teenagers--already tagged as the echo boom, the baby boomlet, generation Y--may, in fact, be even more of a pop culture steamroller than their parents were. They see far more movies than anyone else. Only 16% of the overall population, they buy 25% of the movie tickets. Weaned in front of cable TV, they want constant stimulation. "I get bored easily," says Karina Siam, 15, of Northridge, without a trace of apology. "I need something on all the time--TV, music, something."

In addition, there will be as many of them as there were teenage boomers during the 1960s. And with their big numbers come even bigger pocketbooks. A $122-billion pocketbook, according to Peter Zollo, the president of Teenage Research Unlimited, a marketing research firm that specializes in helping companies target kids age 12 to 19. TRU conducts twice-yearly surveys of teenagers, questioning them on everything from their moviegoing habits to their favorite music groups.

That $122 billion--from allowances and part-time jobs--doesn't even include family purchases over which teens have influence, for example a family computer, stereo equipment or a new car.

"These guys really are being catered to by marketers, and by Hollywood," said Zollo, who has been studying teens for 15 years. "They're a futures market. If you can establish some sort of relationship with them, it's going to benefit you as they get older."

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