Earlier this week I was invited on BBC Breakfast to discuss violence in film with the Observer film critic Jason Solomons. The discussion was prompted by Jim Carrey's recent decision to disavow Kick Ass 2. The issue of film violence often rears its head and anyone interested in my views on the subject can read a piece I wrote earlier this year when Quentin Tarantino was challenged about Django Unchained. Although I'm a staunch advocate of free speech, what bothered me about the BBC discussion (which can be seen here) was that it highlighted the fact that very few family films are being produced any more.
Off camera, Jason and I talked about the great family films of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, but we struggled to name many from the last twenty years. Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis and George Lucas built their careers making accessible films that appealed to the widest possible audience. Films like Star Wars, Back to The Future and E.T. the Extra Terrestrial weren't kids' movies. They were classic adventures and at their heart were strong human interest stories. They happened to be fantastical and adventurous enough to appeal to young children, but were just as likely to be seen by teenagers and adults.
Last year at Cannes I was hired to direct a family adventure film so I have personal experience of working to put one of these films together, but in the current marketplace family adventure movies have little appeal to the major studios. In fact they have so little appeal that Disney, once the home of family adventures, seems to be getting out of that business entirely and is in the process of reinventing itself as the home of the 'fanboy.' With the acquisition of Marvel and the Star Wars franchise, there can be little doubt that Disney sees its future firmly in the PG-13 space.
It's telling that one of the first films I saw, when I was five years old, was Richard Donner's Superman. My eldest son, who is five this year, has to wait another seven years before he can legitimately see Zak Snyder's Man of Steel. It's not just a vague perception that films have been getting darker. In 1982, 11 of the top 20 grossing films were PG rated or lower, which meant the whole family could go to see more than half of the most popular films that year. All 11 were live action. In 2012, only 5 of the top 20 grossing films were PG rated or lower, and all 5 of those were animated. There were no live action films in the top 20 in 2012 that were rated lower than PG-13.
Even in recent years, when the rare live action family adventure film is released, it invariably does well at the box office. Night At The Museum took over $574million worldwide, which suggests that there is demand for high quality family fare. Media analysts like Doug Creutz of Cowen & Company have probably crunched the numbers on this, but as someone working in the trenches of the industry it feels like an entire segment of the market isn't being catered for. It's like a sandwich bar that decides to stop serving tuna sandwiches and assumes that it won't lose any business because people will just as likely eat ham or cheese instead. If you don't have kids you are very unlikely to go and watch Monsters University, but families, teenagers, and adults would have all gone to see Back to The Future. Taking live action family movies off the menu creates a huge product gap.
The 'product gap' doesn't just affect the potential size of the film market, and restrict the potential audience; it has an undesirable social consequence. Young people are being brought up on films that have very little joy in them. Compare the sense of fun and spirit of adventure of Back to The Future to the psychological grittiness of The Dark Knight. The Goonies with The Hunger Games. Movies reflect society, but they also help define them. I happen to be a huge fan of Christopher Nolan's films, but believe there needs to be more variety in the tone and content of films being made. By failing to produce films that contain any joy and wonder we're robbing the younger generation of something magical, and perhaps introducing them to bleak cynicism at a far earlier age than we should. Outside of animation we're denying families the communal experience of going to the movies together, and have almost completely given up on the idea that a movie can be all encompassing. A film like Raiders of the Lost Ark can be enjoyed by someone who's eight or someone who's eighty.
There are a number of possible reasons why so few live action family films are being made. Perhaps we live in a far more cynical, darker world in which lighter films would be doomed to failure - although the success of family films such as Night At The Museum, Alice In Wonderland, and Diary of A Wimpy Kid suggests that's not the case. It's possible that the scale of marketing investment required to open a film means that studios will only back films based on known intellectual property, and that all the big family properties are better suited to animation. Perhaps the rise of terrorism, climate change, and the global financial collapse have caused some form of sociological damage that has turned us all into jaded cynics. Maybe we've stopped making movies that are full of wonder because we've stopped seeing the wonder in the world.
Whatever the reason, the movie industry seems to be missing the compelling economic rationale for getting back into the live action family film business. In addition to the revenue opportunities, these films bring a sense of joy and wonder into the world. They offer the opportunity for shared experiences that can last a lifetime. And the films themselves are timeless; my eldest son's favorite film is Back to The Future. Even without the latest CGI, recognizable stars, or cutting-edge animation, this thirty-year-old gem can still cast its magic on a new generation.