Just three years ago, the big challenge facing preteen filmgoers wasn’t where to find a new movie, but which one to see: In the summer of 1994, studios unleashed no fewer than 15 family-friendly titles, and one of them--"The Lion King"--would ascend into the all-time box-office Top 10.
New family divisions from Warner Bros. and Fox were drawing up ambitious plans--and even Miramax co-chief Bob Weinstein, best known for producing bloody fare like “Pulp Fiction,” announced that “people want softer entertainment. . . . [My 12- and 7-year-old daughters] are my new script consultants.”
What a difference three years make in the Circle of Life.
This summer, out of 105 movies (roughly a third more than 1994), only 10 aim for the entire family, with no G-rated Miramax titles in sight. Among the few June offerings is the live-action “Buddy,” a gorilla tale from Jim Henson Pictures that opens Friday.
So why are Bob Weinstein’s daughters apparently out of a job? Simple: Most studios’ family film balance sheets could be summed up with a single red crayon.
The commercial and often critical disasters include “Cats Don’t Dance,” “House Arrest,” “Gordy,” “Fluke,” “The Pebble and the Penguin,” “The Swan Princess,” “Magic in the Water,” “Zeus and Roxanne,” “Top Dog,” “Miracle on 34th Street,” “Flipper,” “Alaska,” “Baby’s Day Out,” “Getting Even With Dad,” “Andre,” “Little Big League” and “North.”
To name just a few.
Even critically touted features like “A Little Princess,” “The Indian in the Cupboard” and “Black Beauty” disappointed in theatrical runs, leaving family film successes almost entirely to well-known brand names, like Disney (“Pocahontas,” “Toy Story”), Steven Spielberg (“Casper”) and Henson (“Babe”).
“What everybody thought was, ‘I’m going to make something that works for a child,’ but it’s too hard,” notes Brian Henson, executive producer of “Buddy” and chairman of Jim Henson Pictures, the thriving company named after his late, legendary father.
“The studios ended up talking down to kids, making films that were even too simple, or that felt like being in school.
“They’d say, you know why this movie is great? Because it’s gonna teach kids to read! Or, they’re gonna come out ready not to be a racist! That’s not enough. You have to be telling a great story that you’re going to enjoy, and the characters have to be wonderful and three-dimensional.”
Henson also points out that the economics of family filmmaking are not for the small of heart.
“The cost of making a movie has probably doubled in the last seven to 10 years, and the cost of a movie ticket has not. The cost of a child ticket is half price, and the cost of a family picture is more expensive than a regular picture, because you can’t just shoot on location with actors. You need something extraordinary that makes the film bigger.
“Three-quarters of your audience is paying half price. That means if you’ve made $40 million, if that was an adult film, that would be $70 million.”
As a result, family movies must deliver both theatrically and on home video, a challenge few have accomplished. (Several companies now play it safe with straight-to-video releases, like Disney’s recent “Honey We Shrunk Ourselves” and upcoming “Toy Story” sequel.)
That isn’t to say under-16s aren’t going to the movies--just that the definition of family films has changed to include edgier fare, like comedies laced with crude humor, a la “Ace Ventura” and “The Nutty Professor,” or intense roller-coaster rides like “Twister” and “Independence Day.”
Observes Chris Meledandri, president of Fox Family Films: “What we’ve learned is that children’s films don’t work--family films do. And there’s been a redefinition by the audience of what a family film is.”
Henson Pictures President Stephanie Allain agrees young viewers are “so aware, so sophisticated. They want to watch what their teenage brothers and sisters are watching, not what the little ones are watching.”
“Buddy” is one of many family titles awarded a PG rating--in its case, for the intense outbursts of its gorilla hero. But other family films have worked harder to avoid the dreaded G, which is still seen by some producers as a scarlet letter.
Last year, “Fly Away Home” director Carroll Ballard admitted he added a four-letter word to his film just to ensure a PG. “G is the kiss of death,” Ballard told a reporter at the time, “even with a film for children.”
(The same obscenity helped 1996’s “Dunston Checks In” get a PG, although Fox’s Meledandri says it wasn’t calculated--just a bad call. “Seeing the movie in a theater, I felt I’d let something slip by, not preventing that word from being said.”)
To further hedge its bets, Hollywood is increasingly hiring pre-approved names. Sony Pictures has signed a five-year deal with Henson, while Paramount recently inked a contract with corporate cousin Nickelodeon.
A brand name “is hugely important,” Brian Henson explains. “It also protects us. We can say to a TV network or a studio, look, we can’t do [what you want], it just doesn’t work within our company. This is what our audience expects from us.”
The Henson name is bound to help “Buddy,” an ape comedy that arrives Friday in the wake of two simian bombs: 1996’s “Dunston Checks In” and “Ed.”
In “Buddy,” Rene Russo stars as 1920s animal champion Gertrude Lintz, whose East Coast estate plays host to birds, dogs, chimps and the title gorilla, who dangerously outgrows his human environment.
The film is a double gamble for Russo, who’s carrying a film for the first time after playing second banana to male stars like Mel Gibson, Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner.
“Buddy” also risks being seen as just another ape film. So why take the chance?
“I made it for my daughter Rosie, and because it was a wonderful true story about a woman who made a difference,” Russo says. “Those were the reasons that allowed me to overcome my fear of doing the film. And I was afraid to do it, because of the chimps. And the birds. And the iguanas. And . . . just most of the animals!”
Helping allay Russo’s fears was writer-director Caroline Thompson, whose past family credits include “Black Beauty” and scripts for “The Secret Garden” and “Tim Burton’s the Nightmare Before Christmas.”
“You don’t need it to be primates to have this story,” Thompson insists. “It’s the story of a charmingly dysfunctional family that has chimpanzees and gorillas in it.
Despite this summer’s relatively slim offerings, Hollywood hasn’t given up on family movies. Fox’s upcoming slate includes a remake of “Fantastic Voyage” (from the “Independence Day” team of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin), an Eddie Murphy remake of “Dr. Dolittle” and a new “Lone Ranger.”
This November, Fox will also unveil “Anastasia,” the debut feature from its new animation division. The big-budget musical offers vocal work from Meg Ryan and John Cusack, and songs by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (“Ragtime”).
And Henson Pictures is close to rolling on two new films: a live-action version of the children’s novel “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” and an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick short story, to be titled “King of the Elves.”
Looking ahead, Brian Henson seems less worried about drawing crowds than keeping up quality.
“Everything that we do fits into a mission,” he says. “To be innovative, a little irreverent, and at the same time to be positive and celebrate life. We couldn’t do a film if we didn’t enjoy it--it’s too close to impossible to make these things.”