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Movies: Surprise Hits

G is for Grosses

For years, parents and theater owners have been demanding family-friendly films. Finally, the box office has made their case for them.

April 14, 2002|LYNN SMITH

Hollywood, the world capital of sex and violence, has discovered its next big thing: family. The industry made its biggest profits last year from G- and PG-rated movies, and plans to fill the nation's screens in the next few years with even more princesses, monsters, talking animals, bright schoolkids and scrappy ballplayers.

It's not hard to see why. This year's biggest surprise, 20th Century Fox's "Ice Age," a computer-animated story of prehistoric animal bonding, has grossed more than $140 million in just four weeks of release. Other successful family films, such as Disney's G-rated "The Rookie," released last month, and its earlier hit "Snow Dogs," are pushing the box office to a record start this year.

This follows blockbuster family films in 2001, when three of the top four highest-grossing films ("Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," "Shrek" and "Monsters, Inc.") were rated G or PG. The live-action low-profile feature "The Princess Diaries" surprised its makers at Disney with more than $100 million at the box office, while Miramax's "Spy Kids" was a breakout hit that inspired a sequel (and a flock of imitators).

Feeding the burgeoning family film market through 2002 are such films as "The Other Side of Heaven" (Excel Entertainment), "Hey, Arnold" (Nickelodeon), "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron" (DreamWorks), "Curious George" (Universal), Disney's "Lilo & Stitch," "Country Bears," "Treasure Planet" and "Tuck Everlasting," Fox's "Like Mike" and the sequels "Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams" (Miramax) and "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" (Warner Bros.)

If studios needed any further convincing about the potential of the family film market, "Ice Age" should erase any doubts. The computer-animated film wasn't released by either of the animation powerhouses--Disney or DreamWorks--and came out at a historically slow time of the year at the box office. Its opening weekend gross of $49 million was a shock to many in the business, including Fox.

"Releasing a family film in March is not common," said John Fithian, president of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners. "And it not just worked but it blew the socks off a record."

Bob Harper, vice chairman of 20th Century Fox noted that a decade ago, family movies were either for kids or the mothers who decided what the kids would watch, he said. The target audiences had time to discover the films since they ran for about a month.

''We are now in an era when practically every weekend is an event weekend,'' and event movies need to be accessible to everyone, Harper said. Over time, the success of movies like ''Toy Story'' and ''Shrek'' demonstrated that movies about children, even animated ones, could appeal to fathers and teenagers as well as mothers and small children. Industry executives and observers attribute the interest in family-oriented fare to a combination of factors: The growing sophistication and popularity of computer animation, the federal government's increased scrutiny of marketing adult fare to under-age audiences, a more conservative national mood after Columbine and Sept. 11, and a new generation of parent filmmakers.

"We've become absorbed with family values," said Glenn Ross, president of Artisan's Family Home Entertainment, which last month expanded its video operations to start distributing family films in theaters. Producers are no different from other American parents, he said. "If you produce a family film, you can say, 'Look what Daddy made.'" The division will release its first film, the animated "Jonah--A Veggie Tales Movie," in the fall.

UC Irvine economics professor Arthur De Vany and UCI colleague W. David Walls will publish in July a study in the quarterly academic publication Journal of Business that shows G-rated films are less risky and have greater success rates than R-rated films even in theatrical runs. "The paradox is that people think Hollywood makes R-rated movies out of concern for the bottom line," De Vany said. In fact, he said, the truth is just the opposite: Hollywood could have increased its profits by producing more G-rated movies.

That message slowly seems to be getting through to Hollywood. "Studios have already decided that they're going to make more G, PG and PG-13 films," said a market researcher for the major studios who didn't want to be named. Often criticized in conservative political and cultural quarters for ignoring family values, studios are now vying for hard-to-find quality material with gentle themes and universal appeal.

Even Miramax, a studio built on grown-up dramas, announced recently that it is forging into the family market with a series of films based on popular children's books such as "Ella Enchanted." The company calls them "The Teddy Projects."

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