NEW YORK – My son’s first movie was La La Land (2016), which he watched strapped to my chest during a baby-friendly matinee in the New York City borough of Brooklyn.
He was seven months old, hungry and appropriately fussy, which meant that I spent most of the movie standing at the back of the theatre – nursing, jiggling, shushing – and that neither of us has seen the film all the way through.
But you cannot say I did not start him early.
For me, moviegoing is a pleasure learnt in the 1980s from my own mother.
She mostly took me to movies she wanted to see – Heat And Dust (1983) and Stranger Than Paradise (1984).
That decade brought plenty of kid-centred blockbusters too: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), The Goonies (1985) and The Princess Bride (1987).
Moviegoing is a habit I have hoped to instil in my own children.
A theatrical experience insists that we all watch the same thing at the same time. At home, on movie night, I am as likely to be dealing with the dishes or scrolling on my mobile phone. In a theatre, we share the experience. Also: popcorn.
But as we are not superhero fans, our moviegoing has been sporadic. Most months, there is nothing we want to see in theatre.
We are not alone.
In the spring, Matt Singer, editor and critic at ScreenCrush.com, posted on Twitter: “As a parent of little kids, it would be great if there was literally *any* movie in theatres right now I could take them to.”
His choices at the time were Shazam! Fury Of The Gods, a PG13 sequel with a body count that would have terrified his five-year-old, or Puss In Boots: The Last Wish, which had already been running for four months, mostly because exhibitors keen to attract a family audience had no other options.
Now, in August, there are a few more films in wide release.
My kids, aged seven and 10, recently saw Elemental, Pixar and Disney’s latest animated collaboration, with my mum.
Theatres are still showing the live-action remake of The Little Mermaid and the computer-animated Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse.
Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken seems to have come and gone more quickly, although it remains available on demand.
David Gross, a film consultant who publishes a newsletter on box-office numbers, estimates that family films will earn about US$4.9 billion (S$6.6 billion) in 2023, commensurate, or nearly, with recent pre-pandemic totals.
But there are only 12 major theatrical releases currently scheduled for the whole of 2023, about half as many as in 2019.
And the line-up – which includes the current Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem and the forthcoming Paw Patrol: The Mighty Movie and Trolls Band Together – is not particularly inspiring.
“The companies aren’t in it for charity,” Gross said. “They’re going to make movies that have an advantage.”
Of these 12, one-third could reasonably be called original: Elemental, Ruby Gillman, the forthcoming Wish – with Ariana DeBose voicing Disney’s latest animated hero – and Migration, about a family of ducks written improbably by Mike White (The White Lotus, 2021 to present).
The others all depend on pre-existing intellectual property – cartoons, video games and books.
Many of these movies, though by no means all, have a lowest-common-denominator feel, testifying to conservatism among studios and a deficit of imagination and ambition.
So what happened to the great family movie?
Well, a lot of things. “It’s cultural, it’s technological, it’s financial, it’s sociological,” said Mr Paul Dergarabedian, a senior analyst at Comscore, a media analytics company.
Although certain stressors on the family film predate 2020, the pandemic compounded the current predicament: It disrupted the supply chain, pushed many families out of the moviegoing groove and diverted quality releases to streaming services.
Of the major genres, the family film has been the slowest to rebound theatrically, which has made studios reluctant to take chances on a wide release for riskier material.
“Right now, the question is what does it take to get any movie in the theatre that isn’t giant branded IP,” said Ms Nina Jacobson, a producer and a past president of the Buena Vista Motion Pictures Group, a studio in the Walt Disney Company.
The theatrical marketplace, she suggested, has largely stopped taking those chances, creating a closed loop.
“If you don’t give people anything to go to see other than Marvel movies, then you can say only Marvel movies work,” Ms Jacobson said.
But family films have been undergoing a shift that predates both 2020 and Marvel dominance.
The G rating, a stalwart of the films of my childhood, has nearly disappeared, a corollary to the reluctance of producers of family films to admit that they are meant for families.
The dearth of family films is also a function of the much chronicled demise of mid-budget movies – including ones that Ms Jacobson oversaw, such as Freaky Friday (2003) and The Princess Diaries.
Mid-budget movies do not have to work as hard to earn back their investment and they can afford to appeal to a narrower tranche of the moviegoing public, meaning the releases can be more particular in tone and style.
Since the turn of the millennium, there has been a related move away from live-action theatrical family films and towards animation.
What live action there is, as in the case of Disney’s high-grossing remakes, often relies on so many computer-generated effects that it does not seem live at all.
Compare the dutiful live-action Beauty And The Beast (2017), with 1989’s delightful Honey, I Shrunk The Kids or 1991’s delirious Hook.
These movies can still delight and make meaning, as with the ecstatic kid reactions to Halle Bailey’s Little Mermaid. But there is particular wonder and possibility in seeing characters who look like you or behave like you on screen, in real-world or real-world-adjacent situations.
“To see a young lead in a movie who you identify with, to see a story with you in mind, to see that you matter in that storytelling as a young person, those are movies that you hold onto,” Ms Jacobson said.
No one has to go to the movies anymore. Wait for about half a year, and you can see these same films from the comfort of your couch. And quality may not even matter absolutely.
But if we want theatres to survive, that will mean building the moviegoing habit in children, which means giving them an experience, beyond the candy counter, that keeps them coming back.
A third Trolls movie may not offer that. Instead, studios will need to get comfortable with some risk and some trust, making movies for children that do not talk down to them.
“Kids are more sophisticated and have the emotional capacity to be able to absorb things that traditional Hollywood doesn’t think they can absorb,” said Todd Lieberman, a producer whose coming-of-age World War II tale, White Bird: A Wonder Story, will be released later this year.
We cannot expect an E.T. every year, or even movies commensurate with the gems I recall from my youth: Agnieszka Holland’s The Secret Garden (1993), John Sayles’ The Secret Of Roan Inish (1994) and Alfonso Cuaron’s A Little Princess (1995).
But we should expect better. And better remains possible.
Prestige directors are still interested in family movies – see Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (2019), Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (2022) and planned Narnia movies. And have you seen the Paddington (2014 and 2017) movies? Perfection.
So, it does not seem unreasonable to imagine a future in which there are more and finer children’s movies in theatres, ones that send you back out into the light blinking and amazed.
As an adult moviegoer, I often feel spoiled for choice. If we want children to return as adults, we should spoil them too.
“Give people great original family content and they will show up,” Ms Jacobson said. “But it’s on us to give it to them.” NYTIMES
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