Seventeen years and 11 months may be a bit young to reach a midlife crossroads, but Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen are no ordinary people. The May 7 release of their comedy ''New York Minute'' was, by any measure, a disappointment: It grossed $6 million on a grown-up-size 3,006 screens, well below expectations for a movie starring two icons of the tween-girl set.
What went wrong? Some in Hollywood point to audience fatigue: ''Minute'' is merely a drop in a recent deluge of youth-oriented features like ''Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen,'' ''The Prince & Me,'' and ''13 Going on 30.'' Others look at the always-fickle under-18 crowd and see the Olsens as having lost buzzworthiness to teen ingenues like Amanda Bynes, Hilary Duff, and Lindsay Lohan -- whose Mean Girls opened with a four-times-bigger gross and earned $13.7 million last weekend opposite ''Minute.'' As Duff would sing, the Olsens may just seem so yesterday.
There's no denying the success of the twin mini-moguls, who first broke out as infants on ABC's ''Full House'' in the 1980s. Their family company, Dualstar Entertainment, posted 2003 sales of $1 billion in nine countries on everything from Mary-Kate and Ashley clothing and cosmetics (sold exclusively at Wal-Mart) to DVDs and CDs. Even the $40 million-budgeted ''Minute'' may turn a profit once it plays out internationally and hits TV and video (earlier nontheatrical fare starring the sisters has moved a startling 36 million copies). ''They are very popular because teenagers have grown up with them...they're real,'' says CosmoGIRL! editor in chief Susan Schulz. ''Their fan base is so vast it's incredible.''
Still, the muted reception for ''Minute'' probably postpones plans for world domination. Though they'll become copresidents of Dualstar on their 18th birthday, June 13, the Olsens plan to enroll at New York University in September and pursue a normal college life -- albeit one that may include the occasional jaunt to Japan to hawk their own brand of training bras. ''We're concentrating on school and getting through that,'' Ashley told EW at ''Minute'''s premiere. In other words, they have no other movie projects lined up (though they are scheduled to host ''Saturday Night Live'' May 15).
Industry spectators say the scholastic sabbatical is a smart move. ''They need to take a break,'' says Michael Wood, VP of Teenage Research Unlimited. ''They're going to NYU, they're starting to define themselves as individuals, they've now got different hair color.'' (Ashley is the blonde.) ''This transition is not going to be an easy one for them, and time is gonna be their best friend.''
And time will give the sisters a chance to overcome their heavily marketed little-girl image -- something that starlets like ''Lost in Translation'''s Scarlett Johansson, 19, ''Pirates of the Caribbean'''s Keira Knightley, 19, and ''The O.C.'''s Mischa Barton, 18, have managed to avoid. ''There's something about the entertainment business that can turn a human being into a commodity,'' notes Gavin Polone, ''Gilmore Girls'' exec producer and a former talent agent. ''That's not how I'd want to build the career of an actress. That's what you would do with a Pet Rock. That's what you would do with a Hula-Hoop. And those things eventually become kitsch and people don't want them anymore.''