June 17, 2009

The Evolution of the 80s Teen Movie - How Bob Clark, Gen X, and Home Video Changed the Landscape of American Cinema - Part II

Below is part 2 of my three-part article. If you missed part 1, I recommend you take the time to read it here.

Part II

In the 1970s, cable television was largely relegated to rural or mountainous areas where large terrestrial antennas were scarce, making home reception of broadcast television signals difficult if not impossible. However, the 1980’s saw an explosion of American households in urban areas gaining access to cable television. During the decade, the number of cable TV households in the US more than tripled, from 17% in 1978 to 57% by 1989.

The growth of cable television was greatly fueled by the development of premium movie channels like HBO, Showtime, Cinemax and The Movie Channel, and the continuous slate of popular films they offered. Prior to cable television, once a film completed its theatrical run, it was usually years before it made its way to network television where, if the film was exceedingly popular, it might be broadcast twice a year.

At the same time that cable television was beginning to boom, sales of home videocassette recorders were spiking, thanks in large part to the American consumers’ resolution of the VHS vs Betamax issue as well as the Supreme Court’s ruling that home video recording was legal and not a violation of copyright, as alleged by plaintiffs, Universal City Studios, et. al. (You can read the Court’s ruling here.)
In 1982, only 4% of American households owned a VCR. By 1988, the figure had reached 60%. No doubt, Americans were enamored with the “VCR” for the way it allowed them to record a show and watch it later. But in addition to being able to “timeshift” their TV watching, VCR owners were also excited that they could now enjoy feature movies in the comfort of their homes, whenever they wanted. As a result, the Hollywood studios began scrambling to form home video distribution divisions for the huge catalogs of movie titles which they owned. Concurrently, as these studios implemented the technologies, and sales, marketing, and delivery methods needed to ready their pictures for public consumption as videocassettes, large video rental chains (Blockbuster, West Coast Video, and others) were founded and fiercely competed with each other, as well as with the small mom and pop dealers that were springing up on every corner..

Thus, between cable and home video, Americans now had the ability to see complete and unedited recent hits (Chariots of Fire, Taps, Kramer vs Kramer, Foul Play, War Games, Close Encounters, Poltergeist) that were long gone from cinemas but hadn’t made it to network TV yet. Fine films that were overlooked during their initial theatrical release (Nighthawks, Blade Runner) were rediscovered, as were cult and foreign films like Harold and Maude and Cat People. And of course, popular comedies like Arthur, Smokey and the Bandit, 9 to 5, Cannonball Run, and 10 were watched repeatedly and their laughs enjoyed over and over again. Studio executives quickly realized that a film’s success at the box office was no longer the sole factor on whether or not these releases could be impactful and profitable. Films could now be remarketed (or in some cases, bundled as a group) and sold for broadcast on basic and premium cable TV channels. As this was taking place, market research began to show that that a large part of the audience for cable TV movies (particularly repeat viewings of these movies) were high school and college youth, who had ample amounts of free time on their hands to sit around watching their favorite films. (On a side note, it’s clear that the American pop culture phenomenon of quoting movie lines began with these teens of the 1980s who would watch (and rewatch ad nauseum), memorize and repeat dialog from cable TV classics like Blazing Saddles, Caddyshack, Animal House, Stripes, and Airplane.) When studio brass saw their film’s viewer ratings and the corresponding audience demographics, a concerted effort was made to unearth, unshelve, acquire rights to, script, shoot and release content that appealed to this key “Generation X” demographic, and that content consisted largely of teen movies.

America, and particularly Hollywood, was soon completely enamored with the teen movie genre. The profit margin (box office receipts now combined with cable TV revenues) of movies like Porky’s, Private Lessons, Homework, and The Last American Virgin proved very attractive to film production companies and their investors. Particularly intriguing were the low-budgets these films offered, typically less than $10 million and often less than half that. Actors almost always worked cheaply, as most were happy just to have a role in a Hollywood feature. Principal photography took place locally, props were simple and inexpensive, and shooting schedules tight. Screenplays could be written quickly, as writers could tap into their own teenage experience (real or imagined) for material.

But eventually, filmmakers exploring the teen movie genre became more creative. Writers and directors began to acknowledge there was more to teenage life than the neverending quest to get laid and began to make films that explored other aspects of contemporary youth. Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, though it failed to do much business upon its release in late summer of 1982, was nonetheless praised for it’s dead on depiction of contemporary teenage culture, customs, and mores. Much has been written about how screenwriter Cameron Crowe, in his attempts to make his script more authentic, went undercover at a southern California high school. But what’s important is that it resulted in a teen movie rife with identifiable characters that, in between laughs, are dealing with real issues, problems, and scenarios. Let’s face it, as high schoolers, very few of us were seduced by our friend’s mom, road-tripped to a Mexican whorehouse… or wore dresses and makeup to sneak into an all-girls school. So what was great about Fast Times was that the characters were placed in situations, some comical (Brad fantasizing about Linda while he watches her poolside) and some serious (Stacy’s pregnancy and subsequent abortion) that most of us, as teenagers, either went through ourselves, or knew someone who had. In short, Fast Times resonated as the first authentic teen movie. Yes, there are secondary storylines involving Brad’s job woes and the antics of the now famous Jeff Spicoli. But while most teens films up until this time relied on an anecdotal series of gross humor and sexual gags to sustain their momentum, Fast Times, at its core, gave us a lovable, empathetic central character (Stacy) and a more meaningful and realistic series of events involving her search for a boyfriend and her relationships with her brother, and her friends Linda, Damone, and Rat.

The legitimization of the teen movie continued in 1983 with Martha Coolidge’s sentimental Valley Girl, and Paul Brickman’s Risky Business, which broke the teen movie mold with its Revolutionary Road/The Graduate-like themes of rebellion against the supposed American dream of life in the suburbs, attending an Ivy League college and landing a high paying corporate job. Risky Business also set itself apart from other teen movies with its artful cinematography (Lana’s first appearance; the train sequence), and an ethereal original score by new age artist Tangerine Dream that proved a big departure from the typical teen movie soundtrack full of contemporary pop and new wave hits. But while the well-received Risky Business and a handful of other films did much to establish credibility for teen movies, the unequivocal validation of the genre came with the release of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders.

Oklahoma-born S.E. Hinton’s first novel The Outsiders, chronicles the experiences of Pony Boy Curtis, a teenage “greaser” growing up in Oklahoma, struggling with the death of his parents and searching for meaning in his life. In a period where juvenile comedies like Joysticks were in abundance, The Outsiders offered a serious and genuine examination of teen angst (similar to Rebel Without a Cause) as it explored themes such as loyalty, friendship, jealousy, class warfare, and parental neglect.

Interestingly, one of Hinton’s later novels, Tex, had previously been made into a feature film directed by Tim Hunter and starring Matt Dillon. Tex, though, was barely noticed upon its release in the summer of 1982. Not the case when production began on The Outsiders. Director Francis Ford Coppola had won two Best Director Oscars for The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, and had also helmed the critically acclaimed Apocalypse Now. As a result, Coppola had ascended to the pantheon of America’s greatest living filmmakers, so when he signed on to shoot The Outsiders, Hollywood took notice. With a respected director like Coppola now working in the genre, the modern teen film now had Hollywood’s official seal of approval

The Outsiders firmly established that teen movies could successfully extend beyond comedy. As a result, Hollywood soon began cranking out more teen dramas (Racing with the Moon, All the Right Moves, Rumble Fish), and expanding teen movies into other genres, such as thrillers (The Boys Next Door, Out of Control) and horror movies (A Nightmare On Elm Street, Fright Night.)

But of course, what most of us remember The Outsiders for is that incredible cast of young actors, all completely unknown at the time, and each of whom would go on to become a bonafide star in their own right. Credit Coppola and also casting director Janet Hirshenson (who incidentally, is still at the top of her profession -- she cast this summer's Angels and Demons, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and G.I. Joe) with recognizing the talent and charisma of Dillon, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Tom Cruise, C. Thomas Howell, and Diane Lane. Within two years of The Outsiders release, each would be a lead actor with above the title billing. This group would go on to star in some of the most popular and signature films of the decade, including The Karate Kid, The Breakfast Club, Top Gun, Dirty Dancing, and Rain Man. Like American Graffiti, which ten years earier had kickstarted the careers of Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford, Suzanne Somers and others, The Outsiders served as a launching pad for some of the coming decades' biggest stars. On their way to becoming Hollywood’s A-listers, though, The Outsiders cast members would each star in their fair share of 80s teen movies.

Part III: The Brat Pack and the Legacy of 80s Teen Movie


sir jorge said...

You hit it right on the head, this is a great second part in your write up

The Fiend said...

Thanks Sir Jorge. I hope to get Part 3 out soon. If you like the blog please tell a friend.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone remeber this 80's film where a younger male is stocking this cougar. When he finally approaches her at the beach she says she knows he has been stocking her and likes it. SHe invites him to her home later that night and has sex with him. The character is the nerdy best friend of the main character. If anyone knows please email me the answer at ParagonFresko@gmail.com Thank you