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  • The New Old Face of a Genre:The Franchise Teen Film as Industry Strategy
  • Elissa H. Nelson (bio)

Films like The Breakfast Club (John Hughes, 1985) and American Pie (Paul Weitz, 1999), American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973) and Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978), Heathers (Michael Lehmann, 1989) and Mean Girls (Mark Waters, 2004) are often the type that comes to mind when thinking about the teen film genre. The narratives usually revolve around the personal trials and tribulations of teenagers living mostly ordinary lives, with the occasional exceptional circumstance or, in the case of horror, supernatural situation, propelling the action. Allowing for a comprehensive analysis of the genre, definitions of the form often take an inclusive approach; that is, teen films can be considered those that feature teenage characters. Ranging from teen comedy to teen horror, teen romance to teen fantasy, this definition accounts for a variety of subgenres and genre hybrids.1 The teen film is also a reliable production trend, often employed as a way to tempt the youth audience back to the theater when attendance drops. Every so often, a teen film will be a surprise box-office hit, leading to a production cycle of similar films over the following years.2 Since the early 2000s, however, even though admissions and per capita ticket sales are down according to MPAA reports, it seems there haven't been many generic teen films released that have achieved box office success, and no batch of popular related titles appearing thereafter.3 Small-scale films of the genre are still being released, but to less fanfare and with less frequency, prompting the question, where did the teen film go? [End Page 125]

Upon closer inspection, though, another type of teen film has actually been quite successful, especially since the mid-2000s. As part of larger franchises, films like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Alfonso Cuarón, 2004), the first in the series when Harry is a teen; Transformers (Michael Bay, 2007); TMNT (Kevin Munroe, 2007); and Twilight (Catherine Hardwicke, 2008) all feature teen characters in primary roles in large-scale films that tell epic stories. The films are part of series that follow high-concept formulas, build on already-known properties, and exploit synergy to promote related products in ancillary markets—all strategies previously used in blockbuster filmmaking more generally to attract wide audiences. What's notable is that these tactics are being combined with storytelling elements emblematic of the teen film, leading not to the dwindling significance of the genre, but rather to a new production cycle and another iteration of the form. As hallmarks of the convergent media era, these franchise teen films combine multiple styles and modes of filmmaking, and in the process, expand common perceptions of the genre. Considering repeated filmmaking trends helps to contextualize the current moment. Historically, one of the strategies Hollywood relies on when there are threats of audience attrition because of competition from new media is to increase production of teen films. The hope is that by making films with young actors in lead roles and by telling their coming-of-age stories, two essential elements that are hallmarks of the teen film genre, the films will appeal to the most reliable audience segment: the youth demographic.4 Indeed, the two most prolific periods of teen filmmaking occurred during the 1950s and the 1980s, and a smaller though notable production bubble appeared in the late 1990s.5 There are four prominent similarities among these three time periods:

  1. 1. New entertainment technologies were starting to gain traction and were vying for the youth demographic's attention: television in the 1950s; home entertainment, including VHS and cable, in the 1980s; and new digital media, including DVDs and the Internet, in the 1990s.

  2. 2. The United States was in periods of sustained economic growth, and teens were perceived as having disposable incomes.

  3. 3. Although there were the occasional big-budget or prestige teen films produced by major studios, such as Rebel without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955), Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985), and Titanic (James Cameron, 1997), most were lower-budget genre films that often focused on teens in everyday situations (or with...


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