The Teen Factor

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hollywood has come bearing gifts: young heartthrobs, hip-hop soundtracks, wisecracking adolescent characters. But its object of affection--America's ballooning population of teenagers--has mixed feelings about all the attention.

"I think a lot of people ignore it," said Katie Rosen, 16, of Westchester. "It's so. . . . They're going about it all wrong."

Nevertheless, Rosen went to see the popular slasher parody film "Scream" and its sequel. "I liked those--they were different," she said. "They were just fun. It wasn't too heavy. It was mocking and sarcastic. And the cast was relatively my age." She's even tuned in to WB's high school soap opera "Dawson's Creek" on occasion. "It catches you," she said. "But it's so unrealistic."

Rosen's thoughts are fairly typical of teens interviewed from across Southern California. They're media-savvy. They want to discover the Next Big Thing, not be told what it is. They'll criticize their depiction on TV and film as unrealistic or stereotypical.

Still, they turn out and tune in in droves.

For the first time since the 1970s, the teen tide is rising. There are 31 million teens in the United States these days, most of them the children of the last great population wave, the baby boomers. That number will grow to 35 million by 2010. With the greater numbers comes greater influence. More than pop culture barometers, teenagers are on their way to becoming America's cultural arbiters.

Just since the success of "Scream" 18 months ago, Hollywood has put dozens of high school-themed projects in the pipeline. Networks are adding shows with teen appeal to their fall lineups based on the popularity of programs such as "Dawson's Creek," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Party of Five." And teens' love of the danceable and hummable has run albums by the Aquas, Mace and Usher up the music charts.

For movies, that means a return to the high school comedy, unseen in these parts since Molly Ringwald passed through puberty. The first such project to reach the screen is "Can't Hardly Wait," which opens Friday. Set at a high school graduation party, it stars Jennifer Love Hewitt of "Party of Five" and Ethan Embry, who was in the recent indie "Dancer, Tex."

Nicole Delaney, 15, a freshman at Capistrano Valley High School in Orange County, can't hardly wait to see it. Embry, whom she saw in "Empire Records," is her new favorite actor.

"It used to be Leonardo DiCaprio, but then everyone decided to like him, so I don't like him anymore. . . . I went to school and all the eighth-graders and junior high kids started to like him too. Oh, what a turnoff." That doesn't mean, however, that she's taken the "Titanic" and "Romeo + Juliet" posters down from her wall yet.

Delaney hits the movie theater nearly every weekend, usually while hanging out at the Irvine Spectrum, the entertainment center that attracts bored Orange County teenagers like moths to a flame. Here, at least until the 10 p.m. curfew, hundreds of teens mill around in front of the multiplex, talking with friends, flirting awkwardly. After 10, they disappear into the theater or the video arcade, keeping a low profile away from Spectrum security.

Sitting in the food court, three 15-year-old boys from Laguna Niguel recover from a double feature of "Godzilla" and "Bulworth." They report seeing one or two movies every weekend, because, well, it's something to do.

"We see them even though we know they're going to be bad," Alan Anders said.

Today's teenagers--already tagged as the echo boom, the baby boomlet, generation Y--may, in fact, be even more of a pop culture steamroller than their parents were. They see far more movies than anyone else. Only 16% of the overall population, they buy 25% of the movie tickets. Weaned in front of cable TV, they want constant stimulation. "I get bored easily," says Karina Siam, 15, of Northridge, without a trace of apology. "I need something on all the time--TV, music, something."

In addition, there will be as many of them as there were teenage boomers during the 1960s. And with their big numbers come even bigger pocketbooks. A $122-billion pocketbook, according to Peter Zollo, the president of Teenage Research Unlimited, a marketing research firm that specializes in helping companies target kids age 12 to 19. TRU conducts twice-yearly surveys of teenagers, questioning them on everything from their moviegoing habits to their favorite music groups.

That $122 billion--from allowances and part-time jobs--doesn't even include family purchases over which teens have influence, for example a family computer, stereo equipment or a new car.

"These guys really are being catered to by marketers, and by Hollywood," said Zollo, who has been studying teens for 15 years. "They're a futures market. If you can establish some sort of relationship with them, it's going to benefit you as they get older."

That's what start-up networks UPN and WB seem to be hoping. Like Fox did when it started, UPN and WB are courting young viewers, hoping they'll stick with the network. Shows like WB's "7th Heaven," "Sister, Sister" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," and UPN's "Moesha" and "Clueless" all have prominent teenage characters.

The biggest splash came from WB's midseason replacement, "Dawson's Creek," created by "Scream" screenwriter Kevin Williamson. Though some deride its characters as stereotypes, its high school romance themes struck a chord with Siam and her friends.

"We taped 'Dawson's Creek' and were watching it the next day in the basketball room. There must have been 30 girls in that room. It was the talk of the school," said Siam, who goes to Alemany High School. "People my age relate to it. On '90210,' they're like 20 now."

Hoping to build on that, the fall WB is adding "Felicity," about a young woman in college, and "Charmed," a comedy about a trio of witches. Fox, meanwhile, is still coming calling. It's putting on "Hollyweird," from "Scream" director Wes Craven, and "Feelin' All Right," a show about high schoolers in the 1970s. Midseason, Fox also has planned a new show created by Matt Groening, whose "The Simpsons" is still wildly popular with teens, especially boys.

The teen factor--OK, we'll call it the youth factor--is even affecting movies that aren't about teens, according to Dave Davis, an entertainment advisor with the firm Houlihan, Lokey, Howard and Rukin.

While young turks--DiCaprio, Matt Damon, up-and-comer Ryan Phillippe--are hot, older, more established movie stars aren't finding easy success. (Dustin Hoffman in "Sphere"? Bruce Willis in "The Jackal"? Kevin Costner in anything?) Perhaps to lure younger viewers, Willis shares screen time with Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler in "Armageddon." Mel Gibson has comic Chris Rock on hand to lighten up "Lethal Weapon 4."

Davis also noted that today's teens have something the boomers didn't: the Internet.

"It used to be that the popular trends started in the city, moved to the suburbs and then the rural areas. Now, with all these media outlets simultaneously everywhere, there's a far more universal knowledge of what's cool," Davis said.

The echo boom might not resonate as strongly through music, though not because teens have given up their radios. On the contrary, music is an incredibly important part of their lives. "I couldn't live without it," said Siam, in a typical sentiment. But there isn't yet a dominant teen genre.

Alternative rock and hip-hop seem to be equally matched--though hip-hop is gaining ground. Alternative--the choice of angst-ridden Generation X--is too depressing for the new American optimism embodied by today's youth. "You cannot dance to alternative," insisted Delaney, the Orange County student.

In fact, both hip-hop and alternative seem to have abandoned their hard edges in favor of going upbeat. Gangsta rap is losing out to dance music like deep house and the pop-R&B; sounds of Puff Daddy. Grunge has been ousted by more optimistic sounds of Blink 182 or Third Eye Blind. Also, making a comeback: the deliriously up-tempo style of ska and--get this, Mom and Dad--swing music. Popular among the older set, this is one trend that is trickling down. "It's so cool," Delaney said. "It's like a movie from the '40s."

Popularity burnout is, however, a high risk. Music groups in particular have about an 18-month window of opportunity, TRU's Zollo said. By his polling, Boyz II Men and Mariah Carey are the only artists to ever increase in popularity more than 18 months after showing up on teens' radar.

Darrin Phillips, 15, of Northridge, explained that teens like to be a step ahead on music. "I try to like bands that no one's heard about. Then, when they come up, you can say I heard of that first. You already know about a new rap style or whatever," he said.

And for the teen on the go, there are new magazines to keep him or her up to date on the latest gossip or trend. For girls, there's Twist and Jump, new titles introduced last year. And to keep tabs on all the teen heartthrobs, there's Teen People, already being called a success after only six months on newsstands. Boys, too, are being catered to with specific-interest magazines for sports, skateboarding, computers and video games.

Old titles, like Tiger Beat and Teen beat, are flying off the shelves, fueled by a preteen girls' passion for DiCaprio and music groups like Hanson, the Spice Girls and the Backstreet Boys.

Still, it's hard to keep up with teenagers today whose likes and dislikes change faster than you can say, "Chumbawumba." Katie Rosen, the 16-year-old from Westchester, has already traded in Seventeen and YM for Glamour and Cosmopolitan. "I can see my tastes changing," she said.

That doesn't shock Tuller, whose Sterling Teen Network also publishes 16 magazine. When it started 20 years ago, its target audience was 16. Now, he's catering to 11- and 12-year-olds.

"Now, at 14 or 15, they're gone," he said. "They're growing up way fast."

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American Teenagers, by the Numbers

* There are almost 31 million teenagers in the United States. By 2010, there will be 35 million.

* Teens spend $122 billion of their own and their parents' money each year, not including their influence on family purchases, such as cars or computers.

* In the last three months, 72% of teens age 12-19 have gone to the movies.

* Moviegoing is considered an "in" activity among 92% of teens, more than playing sports (89%), using the Internet (90%) or going to the beach (76%).

* In the last three months, 71% of teens purchased at least one full-length CD, 33% bought a CD single and 35% bought a full-length cassette.

Source: Teenage Research Unlimited

* Moviegoing peaks in the teen years. People age 12-20 make up 16% of the population, but buy 26% of movie tickets.

* Nearly 90% of 12- to 20-year-olds reported going to the movies "frequently" or "occasionally." Only 3%-4% said they never go to the movies.

Source: Motion Picture Assn. of America

* Among teens age 12-17, the following non-sports TV programs were the most watched. In parentheses is where the show ranks among American households:

1. "The Simpsons": Fox (32)

2. "King of the Hill": Fox (25)

3. "Seinfeld" : NBC (2)

4. "Sabrina the Teenage Witch": ABC (60)

5. "Boy Meets World": ABC (79)

6. "Dawson's Creek": WB (132)

7. "ER": NBC (1)

8. "Friends": NBC (4)

9. "Home Improvement": ABC (10)

10. "Teen Angel": ABC (96)

Source: Nielsen Media Research

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