Hollywood’s “good girl” marketing spree

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“Good girl-versus-mean girl high school dramas that have played out at the multiplex over the last decade are being pushed aside in favor of stories that let their heroines do more than shop, snipe or try to throw the nearest rival in front of a bus,” Sheigh Crabtree writes in the In the LA Times.

With former tween starlets in court and rehab, daily turning up in tabloid stories more suited to Tom Sizemore than perky pink Elle Woods, Hollywood is rediscovering the appeal of a fresh-scrubbed, wholesome face. As “edgy” heads over the cliff, it’s time, it seems, to give girls a few new plotlines.

Starting this summer, a new crop of tween movie characters with big-studio backing — some endorsed by actress-producers Julia Roberts, Jodie Foster and Charlize Theron — are emerging. There’s a girl detective who runs circles around her local police force, a dancing high schooler who by force of sheer exuberance integrates her local TV station, and a little girl who survives alone on a remote island, a pocketknife around her neck, in the company of a sea lion and iguana. That last heroine, played by Abigail Breslin in Fox-Walden’s “Nim’s Island,” planned for release in the spring, also has the distinction of being the first girl at the center of a kids’ action-adventure film with a blockbuster budget.

Andrew Fleming, co-writer and director of “Nancy Drew,” the first of the films to test the waters when it opens Friday, thinks the generation of girls weaned on the spiritual worlds of “Harry Potter” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” is hungry for an alternative to the “umpteenth expression” of Madonna’s material girl.

“Young female culture has swung so far out now, with Lindsay, Britney and Paris being the center of attention, in a very self-absorbed and worrisome way,” Fleming said. “So many girls are more like Nancy Drew, but they’re living in a world right now where they don’t get any kind of validation for being kind or thoughtful or conscious of right and wrong.”

It’s not that the extreme-teen plots weren’t classic, said Carrie Rickey, film critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer. “The whole mean girl-versus-nice girl drama has played out since Jane Austen — they just weren’t called queen bees and wannabes. But,” she added, “The whole drive to pink up girl culture misses the mark since most thinking girls consider themselves tomboys who don’t fit in.”

The story lines in the new ripple of girl movies suggest that it’s harder but ultimately more satisfying to do the right thing, and those behind the new films repeatedly mention their desire to offer better role models for children. Conveniently, there’s also money to be made. After all, 6- to 14-year-olds represent about $51 billion in annual purchasing power, according to market research firm 360 Youth. Mainstream media executives have been all but bowled over by the phenomenal successes of tween fare such as “The Cheetah Girls” and “High School Musical,” which began on TV. But studio execs have puzzled over how to parlay those titles and stars into big-screen fare that breaks out across age and gender lines.

One hope, with the upcoming films, is that they’ll tap the mother-daughter and daughter-family market that made hits of “Freaky Friday,” “The Princess Diaries” and “Legally Blonde.” (Another desire is to reach into the fan bases built in the nurturing niche realms of television, young adult literature, music and graphic novels.

Warner Bros. Pictures is trying its hand with another installment of “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” which took in a modest $39 million internationally but was made for $15 million. “Traveling Pants 2,” also based on a story by Ann Brashares about a pair of magical trousers, is budgeted at $10 million to $15 million, according to producer Debra Martin Chase. Three years after the original, the sequel was a no-brainer, she said, because a) the first film’s sales in DVD and television are going strong; b) the original title has since been spun off into innumerable young adult novels, making it one of the most popular young adult titles next to “Harry Potter”; and, c) the movie’s stars — Amber Tamblyn, Alexis Bledel, America Ferrera and Blake Lively — are hugely popular thanks to their TV careers.

“A few years ago, every studio had a girl movie on its annual slate,” said Martin Chase, also the producer of “The Princess Diaries,” from Greece where “Traveling Pants 2” is filming. But the desire for blockbusters that hit the “four quadrants” — men, women, boys and girls — seems to have supplanted that, she said. “The studios have been aiming for a four-quadrant movie every time out; they’re much less interested in niche and character-driven movies in general. As a result, you have a chicken-and-egg situation where if you’re not making girls’ movies, you’re not building stars.”

Hitting the tween ground running

WHICH is why it’s all the more intriguing that Warner Bros. and Jerry Weintraub are grooming Emma Roberts into a movie star. In a flurry of movie deals this spring, Roberts (yes, she’s Julia’s niece) booked “Wild Child,” about a Malibu brat who has her comeuppance at an English boarding school; along with Warner Bros. and Weintraub’s “Rodeo Gal,” about an equestrian rider who goes soft on a cowboy; and “Nancy Drew 2.” Before the sequel goes into production, of course, “Nancy Drew” has to draw an audience. But Weintraub predicts that the modest re-imagining of the seven-decade-old girl detective is a safe bet and will have a healthy life in DVD and TV sales. Moms are likely to remember the inventive sleuth whose career has stretched over 350 mysteries in girls’ novels and earlier movies.

“I think I have the right star, in the right movie, at the right time,” Weintraub said by phone from Cannes, where his “Ocean’s Thirteen” premiered last month. “I was looking around for something soothing in summer. Not a big, loud $200-million special effects movie, but something mothers and grandmothers could bring their daughters to.”

Sixteen-year-old Roberts in many ways typifies the new tween queen. She sat in a tea parlor in Beverly Hills late last month, ignoring a perfect chocolate-covered strawberry, as she prepared for a 10-city tour to promote “Nancy Drew.” With her manager-publicist, David Sweeney, within earshot, Roberts effortlessly diagramed her career. Discovered by Sweeney as an 8-year-old while singing a Dixie Chicks karaoke cover at the Hollywood Farmers’ Market, Roberts told her future manager what she dreamed of that afternoon: her own show on Nickelodeon.

A few passing film roles later, Roberts would star as seventh-grader Addie Singer on Nickelodeon’s “Unfabulous,” whose third season ends in July. With “Nancy Drew” and more starring vehicles in development, Roberts is already envisioning her movie roles well into her late teens. Also typical of a young starlet following in the footsteps of the billion-dollar licensing and merchandising juggernaut that is Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Roberts is ready to take on the world of fashion. Last month she appeared on the cover of the sartorial tween bible Teen Vogue at the same time Dooney & Bourke launched an ad campaign featuring Roberts and her Emma bag, a purse the actress designed.

“I want to do a fashion line too, but not an ‘Emma’ fashion line,” she said, clicking through her mental check list. “I want to do a real fashion line and sell it out of a boutique in Barneys or Neiman’s. Like Mary-Kate and Ashley’s line [the Row] but a really cool line of jeans or maybe dresses like [British pop singer] Lily Allen.”

Building on a blockbuster brand

THAT such a marketing trail has been blazed, and supported richly by tweens, no doubt factored somewhat into Fox-Walden’s decision to throw major resources behind its adaptation of “Nim’s Island,” Wendy Orr’s popular kid’s adventure-fantasy novel. Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin, the co-writers behind “Madeline,” moved into co-writer/director roles on “Nim’s,” and the production company attached another rising star in the girl business, 11-year-old Oscar-nominee Breslin, to carry the special effects-laden family adventure film about a magical place ruled by a young girl’s imagination.

Breslin, the quirky beauty pageant loser from “Little Miss Sunshine,” next stars in “Kit Kittredge: An American Girl Mystery,” the first feature film based on the American Girl doll line, about a little girl growing up during the Great Depression. Directed by Patricia Rozema, it is produced by Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas (“Mona Lisa Smile”) alongside Julia Roberts.

As a testament to the logic of building a movie based on the success of an already popular brand — in this case a chaste line of Americana dolls — thousands of little girls turned up for open “American Girl” casting calls in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York last month.

With a budget many times larger than “Kit Kittredge,” “Nim’s” took a strategic tack with casting. Hoping to pull in all segments of the audience “quadrant,” Walden-Fox cast eight-packed Spartan Gerard Butler (“300”) as Nim’s scientist father, along with Jodie Foster as a reclusive novelist who, via e-mail, helps Breslin’s character conquer the island. “To get a movie made with an 11-year-old girl is a great challenge,” said Flackett. “When Jodie [Foster] expressed interest, that’s when the movie became a reality. What was hard is that there aren’t that many girl stars.”

Calling from Australia where she was scouting locations for “Nim’s,” Flackett said the writer-director team didn’t think about Nim as a girl per se, but treated her first and foremost as a hero. “We look for great role models for our daughter,” she said. “There are not that many really heroic girls who climb and jump and are incredibly brave.”

Whether they’re making the new films for daughters, nieces or for the memory of the girl they used to be, a similar sentiment can be found among financiers, filmmakers and studio execs investing in movies for girls.

Theron is editing “Ferris Wheel,” a movie she produced starring AnnaSophia Robb as an 11-year-old girl who struggles to come to terms with her abandonment by her mother. Theron brought 20 minutes of footage to Sundance, where she sold U.S. distribution rights to Overture Films. She hopes to return to Sundance next year to premiere a finished “Ferris Wheel,” in which she stars and which she produced with FilmEngine.

“I really wanted to make a movie for young girls,” Theron said. “We all go through heartache and the pain of family. Sometimes we get stuck as young adults and live in darkness. I want girls to know that no matter what the circumstances, you have the power to change things for yourself.”

There’s a desire to change the film business as well.

“When I started, male-oriented dramas like ‘Devil’s Advocate’ ruled the box office,” Theron said. “I got stuck for eight years where I was the only woman in male-oriented movies. I didn’t start befriending other women until later.” Female mentors, she said, were impossible to find. “But I want to be that person for AnnaSophia Robb.”

The new girl stars and their characters seem well poised to seize the opportunities that are, at least for now, opening up. In “Nancy Drew,” the amateur detective encounters a movie production gone awry and steps in to direct. In her search for clues to the murder of an actress, Drew also masterminds a paper edit of a movie so she can backtrack through shooting days and figure out an actual sequence of events.

And the teen who plays her is smart enough to know that to have the career she envisions, she’ll need to move beyond the roles of nice girls in small movies. For a start, she’d like to do a horror movie, she says, and a comedy. Further down the line, “I would really like to own my own production company some day,” Roberts mused. “I read scripts that I’m not right for, but I would still like to see the movie get made. I would love to produce.”

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Sheigh Crabtree (Archived Contributor)

Sheigh Crabtree is an entertainment reporter at the Los Angeles Times. Previously, she was the new media editor, weekly cinema technology columnist and daily film reporter at The Hollywood Reporter.