A reported essay for Sunday Arts & Leisure on how big summer Hollywood movies are now created and marketed to both adults and children. These movies constitute a new kid-adult hybrid that operates on multiple levels, weaving adult themes into kid movies and making the yearning for childhood an explicit theme of adult-targeted films.
AS he puts the finishing touches on ‘‘Superman Returns,’’ the director Bryan Singer is thinking about bathrooms.
During a screening of one of the ‘‘Lord of the Rings’’ movies, Mr. Singer noticed how many kids in the audience made a mad dash for the bathrooms during bits of dialogue-heavy exposition. ‘‘It was like a stampede,’’ he said in recent phone interview. A little while later, during one of the movie’s prolonged battle sequences, he noticed adults making a similar exodus. Mr. Singer predicts a similar shuffling when his ‘‘Superman’’ lands in theaters June 30.
‘‘I’d like to think this movie is entirely universal,’’ he said. ‘‘But I know there will be bathroom moments for the kids and bathroom moments for adults.’‘
Such is the strange dynamic faced by filmmakers during what has become the most demographically challenging part of the annual film calendar: those supposedly carefree months from early May to Labor Day.
At year’s end sober-minded Oscar movies, the ‘‘Capotes’’ and ‘‘Munichs,’’ compete for grown-ups, while the likes of ‘‘Chicken Little’’ and ‘‘Cheaper by the Dozen’’ fight for the children. In the early months, once again, adult pictures like ‘‘United 93’’ coexist at the multiplex with youth fare like ‘‘Hoot.’’ But summer, when big studios place their heaviest bets, has become the preserve of films made for neither the old nor the young, but rather for the child in the adult and the adult in the child. That exercise is far more complex, in its way, than telling a love story about gay cowboys, or creating R-rated horror. It involves finding the peculiar spot at which couples on a date and parents who may seldom share a home-cooked meal with their children will converge, all of them, on a single experience.
Within Hollywood, the current jargon says a summer blockbuster should play in ‘‘all four quadrants’‘: that is, across the age spectrum. ‘‘There’s got to be something for everybody,’’ explained Jeff Blake, vice chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, which famously managed that trick with its ‘‘Spider-Man’’ films.
More striking, though, is the degree to which summer films like this year’s ‘‘X-Men 3’’ or Mr. Singer’s ‘‘Superman Returns’’ seem increasingly to define a new kind of cultural space, in which traditional notions about age mean little.
Such pictures appear to sit comfortably with an ascendancy of adults who act and think more like kids than conventional adults. These are the not-quite-grown-ups—one could call them ‘‘rejuveniles’’—who delay marriage and parenthood, the better to maintain lives of fun and flexibility, who then bond and play with their own offspring in ways their parents would find ridiculous, and whose consumer choices have expanded the market for everything from micromini cars to gourmet cupcakes.
But the films work equally well with actual children who can’t seem to ditch childish things fast enough. (Market researchers report that children who once identified themselves as children until the age of 12 are now advancing out of kiddie culture at 8 or 9.)
These groups increasingly meet, at least for two hours at a stretch, within the context of films like the 2004 summer hit ‘‘Shrek 2,’’ which worked both as a broad comedy about a flatulent ogre and a parable about the trouble relating to in-laws, or ‘‘The Incredibles,’’ which offered a midlife crisis story wrapped in a superhero adventure story.
‘‘Superheroes are now part of our adult psyches,’’ said Don Payne, the screenwriter of the comedy ‘‘My Super Ex-Girlfriend,’’ a July release that attempts to marry the superhero genre with the romantic sensibility of late-70’s Woody Allen. ‘‘All of us have grown up and held onto our childhoods, even as we’ve twisted them into new adult contexts.’‘
All of which has turned the production of summer movies into maddening demographic exercise, as filmmakers chase an audience that is in the process of redefining itself. The most successful examples—‘‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’’ ‘‘Napoleon Dynamite’’ or the movie that basically invented the form, ‘‘Star Wars’’—strike ‘‘an exceedingly delicate balance,’’ Mr. Singer said. Veer too far into potty humor or frenetic action, and you bore the adults; linger too long in character development or broad themes, and you alienate the children.
To play across the age divide, some filmmakers adopt the strategy perfected by the creators of the classic Warner Brothers cartoons, packing their pictures with in-jokes and asides they know will hit home with grown-ups even if they mystify kids. ‘‘The 60’s weren’t good to you were they?’’ an Army jeep asks a spaced-out Volkswagen in a preview for Pixar’s ‘‘Cars.’‘
Others, however, reject that approach, like the director M. Night Shyamalan, who calls it ‘‘bifurcation.’’ Instead of tossing out lines that appeal to either one group or another, he seeks to inject deeply adult themes into stories that otherwise seem of interest only to children. Thus Mr. Shyamalan’s ‘‘Lady in the Water,’’ set for release on July 21, and billed as ‘‘a bedtime story,’’ is being positioned as a sort of romper-room version of the dark, supernatural thrillers he is famous for.
And while the movie is intended for children—it grew out of stories Mr. Shyamalan told his own kids—it’s far deeper and more surreal than most such entertainment, he said. He admitted to worrying during production that it might be ‘‘too whacked or scary,’’ but said he decided to follow the example of children’s authors like J. M. Barrie and Roald Dahl, whose greatest works willfully ran afoul of rules of propriety and age appropriateness.
‘‘To me it was all about getting back to pure rebellion and free-spiritedness of childhood,’’ the 35-year-old Mr. Shyamalan said, in true ‘‘rejuvenile’’ fashion. ‘‘That’s been incredibly freeing. Since I did this, I’m a completely different person.’‘
In a similar vein ‘‘The Ant Bully,’’ set for release by Warner Brothers in early August, features a cast of insects voiced by Julia Roberts, Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep in what the film’s writer and director, John A. Davis, said could be read as a parable about world affairs and the use and abuse of power. ‘‘I wanted this movie to echo our times,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s good to push certain moral buttons, and if you can do that in an exciting story with great visuals, so much the better.’‘
However thrilling their creative possibilities, though, at root such hybrids owe their prevalence to industry economics. Studio executives are well aware that the difference between a successful children’s movie and a successful children’s movie that adults also enjoy is the difference between a hit and a bonafide blockbuster.
Movies like the first ‘‘Spider-Man’’ may have appealed to kids primarily, but according to Sony exit polls, 52 percent of the audience was over 25. More generally, the highest grossing films of the modern era—‘‘Star Wars,’’ ‘‘Shrek 2,’’ ‘‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’’—is largely a catalog of kid-adult hybrids, notwithstanding the occasional success of a ‘‘Titanic’’ or ‘‘ThePassion of the Christ’’ (or the decision by Sony Pictures this year to buck the trend by releasing ‘‘The Da Vinci Code’’ as a summer film).
‘‘That’s what everyone is really aiming for,’’ said Bonnie Arnold, producer of the new DreamWorks feature ‘‘Over the Hedge,’’ which mixes talking-animal high jinks with commentary on the politics of homeowner associations, the challenges of big-box shopping and lawn care. ‘‘These movies have got to please their core kid audience, but they’re really successful when they branch out beyond kids.’‘
Even if the result is a weird kind of Peter Pan movie that never lets its audience entirely grow up and never lets children be entirely young, more than a few parents prize the new hybrid film as a chance to connect with their children. The parents of the mid-20th century might have been content to let their kids enjoy Hopalong Cassidy or Howdy Doody on their own, but today’s parents expect to join the fun. ‘‘There’s nothing greater than being in the same theater as your kid and laughing at the same jokes,’’ said Julia Pistor, mother of three and executive vice president of Nickelodeon Movies, which is releasing the Jack Black comedy ‘‘Nacho Libre.’‘
But parents with higher expectations aren’t the only adults driving the change; Mr. Blake said that about 25 percent of the audience for any hit family movie is now made up of adults unaccompanied by children. The producer Suzanne Todd recalls scanning the audience at a showing of the recent Disney remake of ‘‘The Shaggy Dog’’ and noticing how many were adults with nary a child in sight. ‘‘I can understand why,’’ Ms. Todd said, especially in a ‘‘cynical age where we’ve lost our moral ballast. Adults need entertainment that’s fun, easy and offers 90 minutes off from real life.’‘
For his part Barry Sonnenfeld, director of the family-friendly road movie ‘‘RV,’’ said the growing adult audience had shaken up previously stale genres, allowing for more complex characters and potentially objectionable material. ‘‘It allows you to make movies that aren’t so down the middle,’’ he said. The father portrayed by Robin Williams in ‘‘RV,’’ for instance, is far more needy and self-involved than the typical Disney dad, while the movie’s central set piece involves an explosive, 100-foot spout of fecal matter. (’‘And we still got our PG,’’ Mr. Sonnenfeld said.)
Still, filmmakers agonize endlessly over the precise combination of kid and adult elements. Producers of ‘‘Over the Hedge’’ worried, for instance, about a character called Hammy, a hyperactive squirrel who, it was thought, might strike some adults as a too-vivid characterization of a toddler on a sugar rush. In screenings, however, the filmmakers were relieved to discover that Hammy tested well across the age spectrum. Ms. Hunt said, ‘‘You have to ask yourself: ‘Is this playing too young? Are we getting too sophisticated or clever for our own good?’ ‘’
Mr. Payne said he learned how to strike the right balance while writing for ‘‘The Simpsons,’’ the Fox series that has become a model mixture of broad-appeal comedy and transgressive adult humor. The trick, he said, is to bounce back quickly the moment you go to far in one direction. ‘‘When you find yourself on a run about socialism,’’ he said, ‘‘you know that pretty quick you’ve got to light Homer’s pants on fire.’‘
Such divisions are increasingly irrelevant, however, since it’s easier than ever to please younger and older moviegoers with exactly the same material, now that children are now more sophisticated and adults more childlike (and childish). It’s now possible, Mr. Sonnenfeld said, to stay fixed on a sort of psychic middle ground.
‘‘You can now make a movie for 20-year-olds, and teenagers will come because it makes them feel older, and adults will come because it makes them feel younger,’’ Mr. Sonnenfeld said. ‘‘If you do it right, you catch everyone coming and going.’‘