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Pop Culture Pendulum Swings Back to the Teen Flick

by Greg Fischer, MC 4500

Three exceptional high school teen flicks were released within the past year: “Superbad,” “Juno,” and “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.”  The timeliness release of these movies along with recurring actors reminds moviegoers of the ‘80’s John Hughes teen flick-era.

 “Based on her work [in ‘Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist’] and in ‘Charlie Bartlett’ from earlier in the year, Kat Dennings could develop into a kind of 21st century Molly Ringwald,” writes Colin Boyd, a movie blogger at Get the Big Picture.

Additionally, actor Michael Cera, 20, starred in each of this year’s best high school movies.

Everyone remembers Molly Ringwald from her roles in “Sixteen Candles,” “The Breakfast Club,” and “Pretty in Pink.”  A local ‘80’s cover band named after her is almost a sure sellout at the Varsity Theater. Remarkably, all three of those films were released within the same year by writer/director/producer, Hughes.

Give the Hughes teen flick-era one or two more years and include three other big titles: “Weird Science,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” and “Some Kind of Wonderful,” and you have one ‘flippin’ sweet’ DVD bundle.

Why is the teen movie back?

“I never knew that it went out of style,” says Zachary Godshall, an English professor.  Godshall, in his third semester at LSU, teaches screenwriting.  He’s written and directed four short films and two features.  His film “Low and Behold” entered the Sundance Film Festival.

“I do enjoy most of John Hughes’s films,” Godshall says, “in particular, ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ and ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles.’

“The reason so many teen movies are made is probably because it is cost effective, and people do like the genre quite a bit.  Just research budgets, and see how teen movies compare to special effects movies.”

 The latest special effects film to watch for, the next volume in the James Bond movie collection, “Quantum of Solace,” scheduled to be released November 14, has an even bigger budget than “The Dark Knight,” which spent $185 million.  “Solace” spends $225 million.

Listed at number three on the highest grossing films of all time is the 1977 “Star Wars.”  However, long before “Star Wars,” George Lucas made a hit high school teen movie called “American Graffiti” (1973).  “American Graffiti” was made for a relatively low budget of $777,000.  It has since generated a profit of $115 million!

Budgets and gross profits of movies can be intimidating to see.  Possibly the biggest movie budget in history was for last year’s summer blockbuster, “Spider-Man 3”: $258 million.  Compared to “The Dark Knight,” the profit figure from that movie isn’t too great, just under $337 million.

“Juno” was made with a seemingly meager budget compared to those big special effects films, just $7.5 million.  However, “Juno” grosses—are you ready?—$143,492,840.  If “The Dark Knight,” say, then grossed four times the budget that the film was made for, how many times more was the budget returned for “Juno”?  A toughy, on ten fingers.

“Superbad,” nearly as well as “Juno,” generated $121.5 million from a $20 million budget.  “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” is still playing on 2,421 screens.  Alive and well, it was shot for $9 million and has already more than doubled that figure.

To greatly illustrate the point, the “Blair Witch Project” spent only $60,000 to generate a gross profit figure of $140.5 million!  “Napoleon Dynamite,” generated $44.5 million, on a budget of $400,000!  Never wonder again why so many teen movies are made.

 What’s up with “High School Musical”?

Many writers refer to it as a “pop culture phenomenon.”  They’re right.

“High School Musical” reminds older moviegoers of “Grease.”  Unlike “Grease,” the movie is marketed to the “tweens,” which Marisa Meltzer of Slate magazine writes are the age group from 8-to-12-year-olds.

“’High School Musical’ offers guilt-free escapism of the highest order . . . What’s more, there’s nothing remotely threatening  about it; its leads are pleasantly cute rather than pant-wettingly gorgeous; nobody ever stays miserable for more than 30 seconds, and its plot is as devoid of sex as Cliff Richard’s bedroom,” Nick Levine of UK-based Gay Spy, writes.

Moving on, the third part in the trilogy premiered last week in Los Angeles.  The official release date is today.  Better score tickets in advance, though.  Part 3 is the first to be released in theaters.  The first two were “DCOMs”, or “Disney Channel Original Movies.”

For “High School Musical,” the budget was $4.2 million.  For part two, the budget grew to $7 million.  The budget for the third and final part is up to $33 million.  Just last week “High School Musical” was performed on stage in Baton Rouge.  It was a hit.  It looks like Disney won’t be cutting their losses with this project anytime soon.

“It’s the most-watched US cable broadcast of all time.  It’s been re-enacted in more than 1500 high schools and community theaters across the United States, and its soundtrack became the world’s biggest-selling album of 2006,” Levine writes.

 Parts 1 and 2 sold more than 15 million DVDs and 13 million soundtracks, making it the biggest screen franchise in the world, according to “The Early Show,” on CBS.

To top it off, Meltzer adds that it was also the first full-length video feature available on iTunes.  What comes to mind next is a line John Goodman says to Jeff Bridges in the Coen brother’s movie, “The Big Lebowski.”

“Eight-year-olds, dude.”

But while the buying power of eight-year-olds may only be a recent discovery in Hollywood, teenaged moviegoers have proven their worth to filmmakers since the 1950’s.

History of the Teen Movie

“Hasn’t the teen movie always been around and popular since the ‘60s?  If not before?” professor Godshall asks.

Before 1978 and “Grease” and even way before 1973’s “American Graffiti,” there was American International Pictures, or AIP.

AIP made B-movies for teens as far back as the 1950s.  These movies were shown at theaters which are today as dead as Latin, the drive-ins.

 In a 1998 article by Patrick Goldstein for the Los Angeles Times, aptly titled “A Teen Movie Machine,” Goldstein interviews Sam Arkoff, co-founder of AIP, for a glimpse into a past life of the teen film genre. Arkoff died on September 16, 2001. 

“Years before Hollywood began its pursuit of free-spending young moviegoers, Arkoff and his partner, the late James Nicholson, had a tight grip on the pulse of teen movie habits,” Goldstein writes.

While Arkoff’s partner, James Nicholson, should not to be confused with actor, Jack Nicholson, the actor (“One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “The Shining,” “Batman”) actually got his start with AIP.  In fact, so did big film names such as Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Francis Coppola, David Cronenberg, and Dennis Hopper.  Arkoff says back then these guys were struggling and worked for cheap.

“In teen culture, trends come and go at lightning speed, often leaving Hollywood far behind,” Goldstein writes.  “AIP’s production schedule was far faster than today’s movies, which are often two years in the making.  A typical AIP film cost $300,000 and was shot in a week.

“The company often made 25-30 pictures a year, most with budgets that would barely pay for a movie star’s personal trainer today.”

Additionally, Arkoff tells that in the ‘50s the drive-ins were held with low regard in Hollywood.  AIP broke serious ground at the drive-ins.  Into the ‘60s, some drive-ins did $50,000 to $60,000 a week during the summer.  The summer blockbuster had not yet been invented.

Arkoff explains that they never made a movie until there was a catchy title.  The titles often matched the recent trends, including, “Diary of a High School Bride” and “I Was a Teenage Werewolf.”  For instance, when the Beach Boys were at an early peak in popularity, AIP made beach movies with titles like “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.”  AIP beach films starred actors such as Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon.

Morover, the newspapers used to airbrush the navels of the girls before running ads for the movies back then.  This infuriated Arkoff to the point that he wrote to several papers, “What the devil is obscene about a navel—if you keep this up, modern youth will never realize the function of a bellybutton!”

In fact, Walt Disney once called Arkoff and yelled at him for having Funicello featured in a bikini.  “She was Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club darling,” Goldstein writes.

But Arkoff explains that there was never any real obscenity in AIP’s films.  “There was no dope, no whiskey, no four-letter words, and no nudity; just some beer drinking and, of course, bellybuttons.

“We helped teenagers discover who they were.”  Well said, but boy how the times change.

How Politics effect Pop

 “The economy and movies are always intertwined,” local movie industry worker, Beau Cheaney

Mama, I want to sing!

Mama, I want to sing!

, says.  Cheaney, 30, has a degree in graphic design from the Art Institute of Houston.


Cheaney worked as art director for the film, “Mama, I Want to Sing,” nearly a $10,000,000 production which hasn’t been released, in post production now for three years.  So needless to say, Cheaney feels just a little jaded about the movie industry.

Cheaney is, however, positive about the way the local movie industry creates jobs for people across Louisiana.  He explains that most local movies are actually being made for just under $1.5 million.  Anything over that figure, and the workers need to be unionized according to law.

“I grew up watching John Hughes’s films,” Cheaney says.  “I’ve seen them all a thousand times, and I love them.”

“I’d ask [John Hughes] why he stopped making them if I had the chance,” Cheaney says.  Interestingly, Hughes might actually answer that it was because of the economy.

 The American Popular Culture Magazine, online, features a 2006 article, by Geoffrey Baker called, “Social Mobility in Reagan-Era Teen Films: From Inaugural Optimism to the Invention of Generation X.”  The article unwraps the storylines of two John Hughes era films, “Pretty in Pink” (1986), and “Some Kind of Wonderful” (1987) for explaining what was happening during Reagan-era politics.

 The two films tell a larger story of the shift in the social attitude of teenagers from the early 1980s to 1987.

“In the year between ‘Pretty in Pink’ and “Some Kind of Wonderful,” something suddenly made it permissible for a poor boy to choose a poor girl and acceptable, even heroic, for people to keep their “proper” station,” writes Baker.

The biggest economists of the day, according to Baker, all prophesied a positive future for the American economy in the beginning of Reagan’s Presidency, so the social attitude of people reflected this.  “The PG-13 rating, introduced in 1985, testifies to an increase in movie-going teens at the time,” writes Baker.

In a nutshell, Hughes, in “Pretty in Pink,” originally shot the movie to where Molly Ringwald’s character, Andie Walsh, decides at the end to forget the rich guy she thought she wanted to be with for the less endowed, Ducky, played by Jon Cryer.

Test audiences hated the ending so much, that Hughes was forced to rewrite the ending so she ends up with Andrew McCarthy’s character, Blaine, after all.

The same goes for “The Breakfast Club” (1985).  The poor guy, Judd Nelson, gets the rich girl, Ringwald.  “Hughes had a definite formula working for him with these films,” Baker writes.

 “Early in ’87 the Dow wavered, finally climbing to record heights in September.  The following Monday, however, it suffered the largest single day loss in history, twice the drop of 1929 which lead to the Great Depression.

“Reagan’s approval ratings dropped, coupled with the Iran-Contra scandal, as well as news of Wall Street scandals,” Baker writes.

What happened in American government changed the attitude of teen movies forever.  It makes sense. 

Baker tells that the late ‘80’s films, “Say Anything” and “Heathers” were much more about teen angst than optimism.  Baker illustrates the ‘90’s teen flick as belonging to Richard Linklater (“Slacker,” “Dazed and Confused”), Kevin Smith (“Clerks,” “Mallrats,”), Larry Clark (“Kids”), the birth of grunge music (Nirvana, Pearl Jam) and the song, “Loser,” by Beck.

The ‘90s pop art shifts to a much greater disillusionment, kind of like the shift in American literature from ‘Realism’ at the turn of the 20th Century, which was by in large optimistic, to ‘Modernism’ 20 or so years down the line, often revealing post WWI angst and workers union struggles.

One thing is certain.  More American universities should have Popular Culture departments.

. . . Slinky’s

To conclude with a reflection on more recent politics affecting the teen movies of this decade, Pamela Sandoz, owner of Slinky’s bar on Chimes Street is glad to help.  Sandoz says she’s actually 12 hours shy of a political science degree.

“That’s what I studied before I decided not to grow up,” Sandoz says.

Originally, from Abbeville, Louisiana, just south of Lafayette, Sandoz admits she was once an extra on the set of the color rendition of “The Blob,” and that you can actually see her in the movie.

Slinky’s bar is open nightly, and usually entertains professors, grad students, law students and whoever else.  Sandoz recalls John Hughes’s movies as the “teen puberty movies.”

“Anthony Michael Hall took forever to grow out of a typecast.  He is finally a good actor,” Sandoz says.  Some film critics are already beginning to call Michael Cera a typecast.

Two important things were brought up by Sandoz.  “I’m always talking to students and I’m amazed that they no longer consider oral sex, or even anal sex to be sex at all.  Before the Clinton era, kids didn’t know what a blowjob was,” Sandoz says.

That is certainly one idea, especially when considering the “American Pie” movies were released in the late ‘90s.  Next, in “Juno,” Sandoz points out how young the main character looks.  “Years back, that would have been denounced, like when Calvin Klein ads were under fire for child porn years back.”

Most recently, you might swear after seeing “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” that it is finally safe for teenagers to roam the streets of New York City all night long.  Homosexuality is probably at an all-time taboo-low, too.  And teens would rather be out watching live music, than simply getting drunk and trashing someone’s out-of-town parent’s mansion.

Optimism and disillusionment are the yin and the yang of pop culture.  Hopefully in another 20 years a new American popular culture scholar will be able to make perfectly clear what is really happening now by comparing the good teen flicks of today.


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