John Clark is an occasional contributor to Calendar

In Paramount's new movie "Harriet the Spy," Harriet is a precocious 11-year-old who spies on her neighbors and friends and then writes down what she sees. She doesn't smoke or drink or do drugs. Her story is based on an award-winning book known and loved by millions, and the movie is produced in part by Nickelodeon, the children's TV channel. All in all, it sounds like a potential magnet for kids, especially girls.

But movies aimed at pre-adolescent girls are a tough sell, even if they're attached to a popular literary property. Even if they're good. Perhaps no movie dramatizes this situation better than last summer's "A Little Princess," which garnered rave reviews but did little at the box office despite the fact that Warner Bros. released it twice.

" 'Little Princess' had the highest scores, from previews and exit surveys, of any movie I've been associated with," says the film's producer, Mark Johnson. "And that includes 'Good Morning, Vietnam' and 'Rain Man.' So I know that once they get in there, even the boys, they love the movie. The trick is getting them in there. Our biggest problem was that no self-respecting 10-year-old boy is going to see a movie called 'A Little Princess.' "

The fate of "A Little Princess" illustrates several truisms about this market. The first, and most important, is that boys somehow must be enticed into coming, because the rest of the family will follow. They are much more likely to drag their parents and siblings to a movie than are girls. And girls will go to watch boys on film but boys won't go to watch girls. According to Peter Almond, who produced "The Baby-Sitters Club," a movie about young girls, based on a popular series of books, that also was a box-office disappointment, this phenomenon is not confined to kids.

"I've heard people say that at all ages, movie attendance is much more dictated by men," he says, "that the so-called date movie and women's movie just doesn't have an appeal to men and they can dig their heels in about going to those movies."

No one seems to have any idea how to overcome this deference toward men's tastes, let alone their resistance to movies that feature female heroines. Jane Startz, who co-produced "The Baby-Sitters Club," comes closest when she says, "I think it has to be a great story. It has to be a character that has a lot of dimension. There has to be some action to it. I think on a broader level, we have to change the culture. How come there are no female presidents yet? It's not because they're not qualified. I think it's tradition and habit."

One thing that would remove some of the stigma attached to young girls movies, she says, would be to "have a varied diet of films that feature girls. Quieter movies of any kind have a hard time drawing audiences, and there's a proclivity to do quiet movies about girls. I recently read [a screenplay] that is a big sweeping science fiction story that features a girl lead. Stories of that genre, a lot of the time the response is to change it to a boy."

There are other, more cosmetic changes that filmmakers can make to attract a broad, or at least broader, audience. One of them is to pay attention to the message sent by the title. "A Little Princess" is a case in point. According to John Krier, president of Exhibitor Relations, "Any time you get a picture that sounds too feminine for the boys, they avoid it, the sissy stuff. We all went through that when we were young."

"If we could do it all over again," says Johnson, "I guarantee you that the movie wouldn't have come out as 'A Little Princess.' "

"The word 'princess' is a very tough word in today's world," says Tom Sherak, senior executive vice president at 20th Century Fox. "One of the movies that I was most proud to have anything to do with was 'The Princess Bride,' which was in no way meant for little girls. And yet the title was so soft. We had such a tough time getting guys to come to this movie. If I had to do it all over again, I would have begged ['Princess Bride' director] Rob Reiner to change the title."

"It gets me to thinking," says Almond. "Maybe 'Baby-Sitters Club' was a bad idea. And yet there are 150 books in circulation with that title. Maybe it should have been called 'Christie Meets Her Dad' or something more general that doesn't skew it by age and sex somehow."

Most agree that there is at least one title change that could have helped "A Little Princess."

" 'Walt Disney Presents A Little Princess' makes a big difference," Johnson says.

"I think it would have made a difference," Sherak says. "It's the one thing in this business that has a brand to it. When you add 'Walt Disney' to a movie, it gives it something no other studio, no other thing, can give it. It gives it credibility going back years and years."

"If I could change my name to Sid Disney. . . ," adds Sid Ganis, president of worldwide marketing for Columbia/TriStar.

Actually, there are other brand names. There is the literary variety, which Ganis is the first to admit didn't help "The Baby-Sitters Club." And then there's McDonald's, Burger King, etc. Johnson says that if there had been some sort of tie-in with one of these franchises, his movie would have seemed hipper, "hotter." Sherak, however, thinks tie-ins are limited as a marketing tool.

"It creates awareness," he says. "The interest isn't created by Burger King selling the movie and Burger King at the same time. The interest has to be created by something else built into the trailer that's put on TV. No matter what they could do, when they were finished it was still 'A Little Princess.' And it's soft."

They could, however, have given it a better chance by releasing it at a different time of the year. Most observers, including Johnson, believe that "A Little Princess" should have been released during the holidays rather than summer, so it wouldn't have had to compete with the big action movies. "The Baby-Sitters Club" was released in August, by which time, Almond says, "families were wrapping up summer and aiming toward the fall. They weren't inclined to go out."

"Harriet," and to a lesser degree TriStar's upcoming "Matilda," are flying in the face of these hard-won lessons. Ganis thinks that the title "Matilda" has the proper non-princessy edge because it's based on a book by the darkly comic Roald Dahl. He also believes that the cast, including Danny DeVito, will help it stand up against the other big summer movies.

And "Harriet"? It does demonstrate many of the qualities that Startz called for. The story is compelling. The lead character has dimension to her. The film has some action. It also possesses a hipness and an edge, particularly with regard to the music. On the other hand, there's that title (too feminine?) and that release date (mid-summer).

Obviously, the studios believe that there's a market for these movies, or they wouldn't keep making them. But despite all these efforts at finding good stories and selling them, it's up to the parents to take their kids to see them.

"They've got to be vigilant about looking for those good experiences that they can share with their children," Almond says. "It's tough to keep this in mind when the habit and the big push in marketing money . . . is about big, highly hyped movies like the 'Die Hards' or 'Mortal Kombat.' The studios have a financial imperative, so the audience has to come through in some way. We've got to find some way to allow these movies to make their way in the culture."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World