When Neal Moritz was a boy, his father, Milton, was head of marketing at American International Pictures, the legendary B-movie factory that invented teen movies, cranking out low-budget beach party, biker and horror films. Moritz’s first job was running the projector when his father screened new films at home. When Moritz visited his father at work, he noticed that Milton would often design a poster and an ad slogan for a film before AIP even made the film.
“It definitely seeped into my consciousness that you should have a clear-cut idea of who wants to see your movie before you make it,” he says. “I also learned why AIP made movies for teenagers instead of adults--because it’s a lot easier to get teenagers out of the house on Friday night. Kids have the most disposable income, and they have the patience to watch a movie over and over again. And that’s what makes hit movies.”
When it comes to hit movies for teens, Moritz is something of an expert. The 39-year-old filmmaker has made his name producing a string of teen-horror film hits, including the two installments in the “I Know What You Did Last Summer” series and “Urban Legend.”
His latest film, “Cruel Intentions,” is a teen update of “Dangerous Liaisons,” with Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe and Reese Witherspoon as wealthy high-schoolers engaged in a battle of seduction and betrayal. Made for slightly more than $10 million, it opened at No. 2 in its first weekend, with $13 million in box office.
Moritz has a lot riding on the new film. Unlike his previous hits, which were bankrolled by Sony Pictures, where Moritz has a first-look deal, “Cruel Intentions” was co-financed by Moritz’s Original Films and New Market Capital. (Sony is the film’s distributor.)
The film is also being closely watched by rival Hollywood studios, which are in the midst of one of the biggest teen movie booms since the 1960s. After seeing the profit generated by such films as “Last Summer” and the “Scream” teen-horror series, studios put so many teen films into production that one will hit the theaters nearly every week from now until the end of summer. Recent reports from talent agencies and studios estimate that there are at least 60 more teen-oriented projects in various stages of active development and production.
But what makes studio heads and producers like Moritz nervous is that teen moviegoers are notoriously fickle and unpredictable--no one really knows what type of films they want to see. In the past months, “The Faculty,” a film thought to be a slam-dunk hit, was a disappointment, while “She’s All That,” which had little buzz and took a critical drubbing, was a surprise hit. So what’s the difference between a film that works and one that doesn’t? Ask the man whose livelihood depends on it.
“You have to do something fresh and original, that turns the genre on its head,” Moritz says. “When we did our test screenings with ‘Cruel Intentions,’ we got great numbers, but what really told us something was the boxes that were most checked to describe the film were the ones that said ‘unique’ and ‘original.’ ”
Moritz’s Hollywood roots are deep: His grandfather, Joseph, was a movie theater owner here; Jon Peters was a close family friend. But after Moritz graduated from UCLA, he “rebelled” against his Hollywood upbringing by starting a company that made women’s handbags. A few years later he returned to the fold, producing his first low-budget hit, “Juice,” in 1992. He was also one of the producers on the big-budget “Volcano” in 1997.
He recently launched Original Films, which produces music videos and commercials and is making a “Cruel Intentions” TV pilot for the Fox network. The company’s film slate includes “Blue Streak,” a Martin Lawrence comedy due later this year, and “Skulls,” which Moritz describes as “The Firm” set at an Ivy League college.
“Neal is a fantastic producer because he loves movies and makes movies that he loves,” says Sony studio chief Amy Pascal, who recently signed Moritz to a new three-year deal. “He’s incredibly prolific and he seems to have his finger on the pulse of what’s happening.”
Although his films have earned little critical respect, Moritz’s industry peers say his nonstop drive and ambition will someday vault him into a top studio position.
In true Hollywood fashion, he’s unsentimental about his work. When asked if his father is a fan of his films, Moritz replies: “He’s my dad. He’s going to like anything that I have my name on. I’m more interested in what my neighbors’ kids think. That’s who’s going to see them.”
At his no-frills West Los Angeles offices, he checks his film’s latest tracking numbers as he fields a flurry of phone calls. In between he chatted about the ever-changing teen movie biz.
Question: It used to be that teen movies were all about boys either coming of age or rebelling against authority. Now they seem to be driven largely by stories about girls. Why?
Answer: I honestly don’t know the cultural reasons for it. What I do know is that we aim for the girls because wherever young girls are, young boys will follow. The heroines of teen horror films have always been young girls, but we were surprised to learn that the main audience was young girls too. But you have to walk a fine line in terms of how much blood and gore you put in, because if you put in too much, the girls are turned off. And if you don’t put in enough, the guys are let down because it’s too tame.
Q: The criticism of “Cruel Intentions” is that it’s too rarefied for kids. The characters Sarah and Ryan play are snotty rich kids who get off being cruel and using sex for power and control. Isn’t that too cold and sophisticated a story line for kids to relate to?
A: Cruelty is certainly a part of the film, but deep down the movie is a love story, a tale of redemption. Ryan is a bad kid, but he falls in love with someone and it changes him and I think that’s something anyone can relate to. The best characters aren’t necessarily sympathetic. I’d compare Ryan to the Jack Nicholson character in “As Good as It Gets.” He’s so interesting that you can’t help but like him. Girls love bad boys and Ryan is a great bad boy character.
Q: This is an era where everyone complains that Hollywood is no longer a good business. Why are teen films different?
A: It’s economics. We made “Cruel Intentions” for $10 million. “I Know What You Did Last Summer” cost $13 million. “Urban Legend” cost $14 million. If we only did $30 million with “Cruel Intentions,” it would still be a big success. You just don’t have the incredible pressure you have making a $100-million film. I loved making “Volcano,” but the pressure was excruciating. With a big film, you can sometimes hit a grand slam. But I’m more comfortable with teen films, where you can hit singles and doubles and maybe the occasional home run.
Q: One of the reasons Hollywood is in such trouble is that studios think they need $15-[million] and $20-million actors to open a movie. Are stars less important for a teen film?
A: It’s not vital to have a name cast, but it’s important to have some familiar faces, whether they’re from TV or from the music business. It really helped us having Sarah and Jennifer Love Hewitt in “I Know” and Brandy in the sequel, because it gave you a hook that you could hang the marketing campaign on.
Q: Teen stars are still relatively inexpensive. Even top names, like Hewitt and James Van der Beek only get $1.5 million for a movie. But your three lead actors in “Cruel Intentions” did the movie for $500,000 each. Isn’t that well below their regular salaries?
A: When you have good material, you can often get actors to work for a little less than their market price. Our director of photography was so eager to do the film that he took half his rate. When you only have $10 million to spend on a film, you go in with the attitude: “This is all the money we have, so you’re either on the train or you’re not.” I hate hearing people whine about there not being enough money. You never have enough money, no matter what the budget is.
Q: So why did it take Hollywood so long to rediscover teen movies?
A: Everything in this business happens in cycles. The films are gone, then someone makes one that feels fresh and it’s a hit and suddenly everyone wants to make a teen movie again. It’s like John Travolta. He was a star, then he was dead, now he’s a big star again.
Q: So now it’s time for making teen versions of the classics, like your film or “Ten Things I Hate About You,” a teen version of “Taming of the Shrew.” Someone’s even done a teen version of “Othello.”
A: [Laughs] I guess we’re due for a teen western. Actually I think teen thrillers are the next big thing--you know, a teen “Basic Instinct” or “Jagged Edge.” There are only eight great stories to tell. The smartest people just find a way to give them a new wrapping and make them feel fresh.
Q: Are kids today really different from kids of past generations?
A: I don’t think so. When you’re a kid, there’s only a few things foremost on your mind. If you’re a boy, you think about girls. And if you’re a girl, you’re thinking about boys. You’re not thinking about the meaning of life, which is probably why that’s not really a big topic in teen movies. It comes down to the simplest, most immediate things, like what am I going to do on Friday night?