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Preteens Left Behind In Summer Film Fare

If this summer’s offerings for the preteen crowd look a little thin, you can start by blaming … last summer’s offerings.

Get past “Pocahontas” and “Babe” and there were disappointments everywhere: from franchises (“Lassie”) to book adaptations (“A Little Princess”); from crapshoots (“The Amazing Panda Adventure”) to sequels (“Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home” - although Warner Bros. plans a third installment for next summer). And changing demographics have something to do with it, too.

This year, studio executives and exhibitors say, Hollywood wants to target the families of baby boomers. Hence, family fare means movies now targeted for all age groups in a family, and that means movies have to have a much broader appeal than to just the 5- to 12-year-old crowd. (Even at Disney, there will be no chirpy mermaids or cuddly lion cubs this summer; the hero of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is the disfigured outcast from the dark Victor Hugo novel.)

“And you can expect it to change again in a few years as well,” says Chris Meladandri, head of 20th Century Fox’s Family Film division - which doesn’t have a family film in the pack this summer. “The studies that I’ve looked at show, in the next four to five years, those kids will become teenagers and they will make up the largest bloc of moviegoers in the history of movies. The challenge will be how to appeal to the kid in all of us.”

The challenge, says Howard Lichtman, executive vice president of marketing for the Toronto-based theater chain Cineplex Odeon, will be how to make enough movies like “Clueless” and “Wayne’s World” to take advantage of that incredible market.

In the meantime, Hollywood has to live with a few years of feeling its way through what the public wants in family movies. This summer, Lichtman says, “the big summer business for kid fare are basically five movies: ‘Flipper,’ ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame,’ ‘Matilda,’ ‘(The Adventures of) Pinocchio’ and ‘Harriet the Spy.”’

Some films that are borderline for the preteen crowd are Eddie Murphy’s take on the Jerry Lewis classic “The Nutty Professor”; the sci-fi drama “Independence Day”; “Kazaam,” with Shaquille O’Neal as a genie; the special effects-driven fantasy “Dragonheart”; this year’s elephant movie, “Larger Than Life,” with Bill Murray; “A Very Brady Sequel”; the heist-gone-wrong comedy “Carpool”; the survival drama “Alaska”; and the Tom Arnold comedy “The Stupids.” Most of these are geared for those 11 and older, exhibitors say.

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