When Ben Stiller was pitching Reality Bites, his angst-ridden romantic comedy about friends just out of college, every major studio politely passed. After the recent failures of slacker films like Singles, Bodies, Rest and Motion, and The Night We Never Met, Hollywood wasn’t eager to continue its flirtation with such a fickle age group. But then the 28-year-old director snagged Winona Ryder and secured a soundtrack with top 10 potential, and suddenly Universal smelled a Generation X breakout, which would bring post-baby boomers flocking to theaters.
A disappointing $17.4 million later, Bites has joined its predecessors in box office mediocrity: Its likely final gross of just over $20 million will barely best Singles. Now moviemakers are wondering whether Generation X-so named by Douglas Coupland in his 1991 novel-is indeed a market of 52 million 18- to 29-year-olds, or a small cadre of disaffected, white, postcollege navel-gazers with no disposable income.
It’s a question that stumps even the so-called Xers. ”For every person who says ‘I’m a total slacker,’ there are two who say ‘I’m 26 and married,”’ says Bites screenwriter Helen Childress, 24, who, unlike her romantically challenged characters, wed three years ago. ”I don’t mean to sound like a refusenik, but I don’t know anything about Generation X. I guess part of the X thing is not being able to fit into the X thing.” According to Andrew Fleming, 31, the writer-director of Threesome, an upcoming film about college roommates, ”what defines the generation is that there is no collective opinion. To think you can sum up a generation in a movie is foolhardy, but I don’t think Stiller or Childress were trying to do that. I think that was marketing.” Indeed, Stiller himself sensed that the label ”Generation X” would . only handicap Reality Bites. ”I made (the movie) for a lot of different age groups,” he says. ”This Generation X nomenclature has such a negative connotation.”
As execs watch young moviegoers line up for mass-marketed films like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Naked Gun 33 1/3, they’re abruptly deciding to play down the generation gap. Fleming admits to being frightened by Bites’ performance and quickly stresses that Threesome ”is the exact opposite of Reality Bites. The characters don’t talk about anything contemporary-they exist in a void.”
In fact, not trying to target Xers may be the best way to attract them. Twentieth Century Fox’s youth-oriented summer films PCU and Airheads ”will be marketed like all movies-very broadly,” says marketing president Andrea Jaffe. ”Airheads is not a story line that deals with angst. And PCU is not limited to angst.”
But even the angst-not, want-not approach might not cut it. ”The reason Reality Bites didn’t have bigger box office has nothing to do with the film. Most movies are being clobbered now-there are twice as many movies out there,” says Mark Gill, 31, senior VP at Columbia. ”But no one wants to know why you didn’t get there. They just know you didn’t.”