It's a Boy's World in Hollywood
Tinseltown's moguls know whose tastes really make and break movies at the box office.
It's 14-year-olds like Eric Bell who turn films like 'The Waterboy' into smashes--and others into flops.
By AMY WALLACE, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
Forget Armani suits. The new power player in Hollywood--the one whose tastes often determine whether a movie succeeds or fails -- doesn't wear designer clothes. Heck, he rarely even wears long pants.
No matter what the weather, the person whom movie executives are trying to please more than anyone else can be found in low-slung cargo shorts (the kind with the big pockets), an oversized T-shirt with a surfboard logo and impossibly wide suede sneakers, perfect for skateboarding. His hair is spiky, his feet look too big for his body. And his mom? She's in the kitchen making dinner.
Meet Eric Bell, 14-year-old. The Hermosa Beach ninth-grader goes to the movies four or five times a month. If he likes what he sees--as he did recently with "The Waterboy," "Rush Hour" and "Armageddon"--he'll fork over another $8 ($5.50 when they honor his student ID) to see it again. When his dad, John, a national product manager at a Long Beach company that makes industrial valves, tells him he's wasting his money, Eric doesn't even try to explain.
"He just won't understand," Eric says fondly, as if his dad suffers from some regrettable clueless disease. "Repeat viewing "interests me. And it's something to do. And it's, I don't know, good entertainment. You pick up things you didn't hear the first time around."
Eric and his brethren, the teenage males of America, see more movies than girls their age and vastly more than any other age group. Even more important to the people who run movie studios, boys see movies early--usually in the first week or 10 days of release. And in so doing, without necessarily knowing it, they wield a lot of power. Their support can give a movie legs. Their indifference can mean its doom. The baby boomers may be running the studios. A growing crop of Gen-X directors may be making more studio movies. But it is teenage males who decide what films are hot.
"What the studios look for are early attenders," said David Smith, president of entertainment at Frank N. Magid Associates, a firm that conducts consumer research on movies, TV shows, videos and the Internet. "It's not that studios rely only on 14-year-old boys, but they're the critical group that opens or doesn't open a movie. Particularly for action and comedy, they're the core." Joe Roth, the chairman of Disney Studios, says that he can predict how much a movie's going to open with by simply gauging "the heat" his 14-year-old son and his buddies have for a particular picture. "They had to go see 'The Waterboy' the Friday it opened at 4 o'clock in the afternoon, so I said, 'We'll gross over $30 million [opening weekend].' We made $40 million," Roth said. " 'Enemy of the State' they had to see Saturday night, not Friday, so I said, 'Well, that movie's going to do in the 20s.' And 'Psycho,' they didn't see it at all. It did about $10 million [its first weekend]."
It's not that 14-year-olds are the best judge of a dramatic concept, Roth cautions. He doesn't, for example, give his son scripts to read and comment on. But teenagers, he said, are supremely attuned to whether a completed picture is in sync with the popular culture.
"You can't ask them, say, 'What do you think of this idea?' But they are a good measure of your marketing. They're watching television and they're hooked up to the Internet and they get senses about what's happening," he said.
This is part of the reason why so many teen pictures are being made these days, from the hugely successful "Scream" and "Scream 2" to the recent "Varsity Blues." For moguls who are trying to get in touch with the teenage psyche, the idea of making teen-centered comedies and horror flicks seems a relatively safe way to go. (By one studio estimate, there were as many as 60 high school-themed films in production or active development in 1998.) Much harder to identify are what other kinds of movies will strike their fancy, since few of the rules that govern adult viewership seem to apply. For example, movie stars who bring thirtysomethings to the theaters in droves leave many teenagers cold.
Here is Eric, for example, on Julia Roberts: "She's OK." Meg Ryan gets the same unenthusiastic review, as do basically all female stars. Mention Meryl Streep and Eric's face goes blank. He says he has not heard of her recent movie, the potential Oscar nominee "One True Thing."
Younger actresses like Jennifer Love Hewitt and Sarah Michelle Gellar get a slightly warmer response, but Eric has never gone to see a movie because they were featured.
And here he is, tepid on Tom Cruise: "I liked that one movie, 'Top Gun.'
Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, Bruce Willis and Tom Hanks rank much higher on his scale.
Boys Prefer Action, Humor
To be 14 years old is to know, precisely, how much taller you've grown in the past year (in Eric's case, 2 inches). It is to yearn to grow up while at the same time saving, on a shelf in the room you share with your 12-year-old brother, a lump of clay pressed around a piece of green plastic that you made when you were in second grade.
It is to tie your shoelaces real loose, with the knot tucked invisibly under the tongue, to eat three tacos and a burrito in one sitting, and to use "dope" as an adjective (translation: "cool").
Eric does all those things. He also idolizes the San Francisco 49ers (a whole wall of his room is plastered with their posters). Though only 5 feet tall, he dreams of playing professional football. If that doesn't work out, he said, he will probably be an emergency room doctor (because it seems like he'd see a lot of action). And in the meantime, he'd like to start a band--if his mom would only buy him the drum set she promised. For inspiration, before he goes to sleep, he listens to such bands as Third Eye Blind, Sublime and Blur on his Discman.
Eric, who works Saturdays at a surf shop to supplement his $10-a-week allowance, made time in his busy schedule the other day to talk with a reporter. He had a five-page paper due on the effects of Mt. Vesuvius on the village of Pompeii, and his train of thought was interrupted several times by his 16-year-old sister asking for the $10 he owed her. Nevertheless, he revealed much about the teenage sensibility.
When Eric goes to the movies, usually with his friends Brad, Jeff and Matt, they go early because they like to sit in their favorite seats (in the middle, preferably in the first row of the tiered stadium section). One of them saves places and they take turns getting food, which for Eric usually means nachos, a medium drink and a huge bag of Skittles.
Eric's favorite movies combine action and humor--like "Men in Black" and "Independence Day." He likes action so much that it will even lure him to see historical films, like "Braveheart." "It was great because of all the fighting scenes with, like, whatever kinds of weapons those things were and people getting their heads all chopped off," he said. Mel Gibson's top billing meant nothing. Eric has not seen a single "Lethal Weapon" movie. Only on a fluke will he spend his cash on softer fare, as when he happened into Disney's recent flop "Simon Birch" and liked it.
"We were trying to get into 'Rush Hour,' but it was all sold out," he said. "So we were just there. So we thought, 'Let's just go to "Simon Birch," 'cause there were some girls we knew going in there. We thought, 'This is going to be horrible.' But it started out really funny." What steers Eric toward a movie? An eye-popping trailer is important, he said, but the opinions of his classmates at Manhattan Beach's Mira Costa High School matter more. And although the major movie studios have toiled to get their promotions online, creating new Internet sites advertising each new release, Eric is oblivious--when he signs on, he frequents chat rooms and sports-related sites.
Smith, of Magid and Associates, says that much more than with other age groups, teenagers are hard to target in movie marketing campaigns. "They're spread out watching 40 to 50 channels of cable. They have all these other media usage patterns, with the Internet, that make it tougher to get a message to them," Smith said. "They don't all go to the same restaurant, so to speak."
Selling a movie to a teenage boy, therefore, is "much more grass-roots," he said. "It's what they're talking about at school. E-mail and the telephone play a big role as well as TV. They're trying to lead us. They think it's cool to be doing something before it's in a magazine, when it's out there but it's under the radar. If Mom and Dad don't get it, that makes it even cooler."
That was definitely the case for Eric with the teen movie "Can't Hardly Wait," the story of a high school graduation party that he deemed "pretty cool" although it fit into neither of his favorite genres, action and comedy.
"It was kind of like, I don't know, something for teenagers only," he said approvingly. "It wouldn't be something any adult would like.,, The worst thing Eric can say about a movie is that it bored him. He hates to be bored.
"The Horse Whisperer," Robert Redford's three-hour horse movie, was a dud, he said. So was "Deep Impact," the recent comet-threatens-Earth flick. "There were good parts, but there were parts where--it was just boring. No action."
"The Mask of Zorro," by contrast, was "never boring." Neither were the teen horror movies "I Know What You Did Last Summer" and "I Still Know --" ., both of which he liked. "They kind of, like, make you tense because you don't know what's going to happen," he said in a way that made anxiety sound enjoyable. Among the films he skipped:
"Godzilla" -- "I heard the special effects were good, but the acting was, like, horrible."
"Babe: Pig in the City"--"It's too, like, little-kid."
"Meet Joe Black"--"Is that the one with Brad Pitt? My sister said it was a chick flick."
"Mighty Joe Young"--"I don't know. It looks too much like 'George of the Jungle' and that was horrible. It was too, kind of, young."
"Psycho"--"People said it was just really nasty."
Eric rejected these films. They all had disappointing box-office returns. Cause and effect? You be the judge.