One of the great things about teenagers is that, while they may take a "whatever" approach to the fight over privatizing Social Security or successfully naming the mayor of Los Angeles, they are full of strong opinions about the really important things in life, starting with why Jessica Alba is cool and Lindsay Lohan is not.
There is no better way to help decipher the baffling intricacies of pop culture than by corralling a group of teenagers and letting them gab about summer movies. Now in its fifth year, my Summer Movie Posse is an informal focus group of neighborhood kids who watch trailers for the most hotly anticipated youth-oriented summer films. (To make their parents more comfortable and to prevent them from being deluged by Hollywood marketers, Posse members are identified only by first name.)
This year's group of eight teens, assembled by my neighborhood pal Gabe and his younger sister, Ta, would never pass muster as a statistically significant sampling. But as media savvy teens, they represent a key target audience for movie studios. During much of the year they may see only one movie every three weeks. But during the summer, they see a movie nearly every week, which is why studios cater to their whims in pretty much the same way that Vegas hotels roll out the red carpet for a high roller with a wad of thousand-dollar bills.
Studio marketers often argue over whether white Westside teens have the same attitude about movies as kids in South Philly or Oklahoma City, but judging from past Posse juries, their reactions aren't out of sync with the rest of the country. Last year, their favorite trailers were "Anchorman" and "Dodgeball," which went on to be hits. The low scores went to "Soul Plane" and "Van Helsing," which were duds.
At the very least, they are pop culture canaries in a coal mine, offering a sneak peek at who's on the way up and who's on the way down. They loved Johnny Depp before he was in "Pirates of the Caribbean;" they loathed Jessica Simpson long before she had her own reality TV show. If someone jumps the shark, they're the first to know. This year, they were especially dismissive of Lohan, star of the upcoming "Herbie: Fully Loaded." As Alex, 18, succinctly put it: "The only person who [is worse] than Lindsay Lohan is Hilary Duff."
I wouldn't want to be the studio putting out a Will Ferrell movie next summer. After seeing the popular comic in two lackluster trailers, the Posse thought he was stretched awfully thin. As Ta, 14, said of Ferrell's appearance in "Bewitched," "He seems to play the same character in every movie." The Posse wasn't any kinder to the punk band Green Day, that had songs in three summer trailers, which they viewed as a sure sign of the band having sold out, especially after hearing one of its songs in "Lords of Dogtown," a movie set in 1975, a time when the band was still in diapers.
Although the summer is loaded with remakes and sequels, the teens have an abiding affection for some pop artifacts but not others. The boys were all deeply nostalgic about "Star Wars." And everyone was eager to see "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," partially because of Depp but largely because they all had fond memories of the original film. On the other hand, they had little interest in "Herbie" or "Bewitched," which were taken from sources that had little resonance for them.
It would take a sizable amount of space to deconstruct their likes and dislikes, but in short they think Brad Pitt is cool; Tom Cruise, not so much. Adam Sandler is funny, Rob Schneider is not -- unless he's in a Sandler movie. They speak reverentially of older actors like Samuel L. Jackson, Liam Neeson and Christopher Walken, but they're indifferent, if not openly hostile, to young heartthrobs like Hayden Christensen and Chad Michael Murray. The boys, who outnumbered the girls this year 6 to 2, were huge fans of sex babes like Alba and Jessica Biel but viewed Paris Hilton, a costar in "House of Wax," as beyond contempt.
If nothing else, they have a suspicion that movies are more commerce than art. Noticing that Neeson has parts in two summer films, "Batman Begins" and "Kingdom of Heaven," Andrew, 18, said knowingly, "He must be building a house."
Here are highlights from their discussion, which, if nothing else, was brutally honest. While most of their remarks emphasize style over substance, don't blame them -- if there's any substance in summer movies, it's been extracted from these trailers. (See accompanying box for the Posse's grades):
"XXX: State of the Union"
Travis, 14: "It looks stupid to me. I don't like sequels where they don't use the original actor."
Alex: "They're just using Ice Cube because Vin Diesel wanted too much money."
Andrew: "But I like Sam Jackson, and it's really cool having Ice Cube in the movie. There are plenty of successful sequels that use different actors."
Gabe, 18: "I can really see Willem Dafoe as the bad guy -- he reminds me so much of my principal."