As has been widely reported, Harry Potter made a massive impact at the box office in the last few weeks, and continues to do so. Success was inevitable, and the level of success predictable. Harry Potter is one of the most popular book series of all time, appealing to fans both young and old. All previous installments in the Harry Potter movie series have made hundreds of millions of dollars, and with the finale in sight, anyone with even a passing interest in the boy who lived wants to see how it all ends.
The success of Harry Potter financially, particularly in the case of Deathly Hallows, is also however part of a much bigger movie trend. We have seen, in the last year particularly, an apparent rise in the popularity of the family movie. Whilst in the past it has been big, effects heavy action movies that have been the big hitters, it seems there is now just as much interest, if not more, in family orientated, action adventure movies, in both animated and live action form.
It started at the beginning of the year with Alice in Wonderland. Directed by Tim Burton, and starring Johnny Depp, it was always going to have elements that would appeal to both children and adults alike. The novelty of the 3D experience was also just starting to become wildly popular thanks to Avatar, resulting in Alice setting the box office bar high early on in the year.
Then along came How to Train Your Dragon. The year’s first big animated movie, the original nature of the storyline, not based on a recognisable property, meant that How to Train Your Dragon started reasonably slowly at the box office. This Dragon however had long legs, and the combination of the 3D factor and fantastic word of mouth meant that it became a massive box office success.
The trend continued throughout the year, particularly with animated movies such as Shrek Forever After, and the big gun Toy Story 3. Toy Story 3 broke records to become the highest grossing animated movie of all time. Despicable Me enjoyed moderate success, and just a few weeks ago Megamind helped set a record for box office figures on the opening weekend of the Winter period.
There have been less live action success stories, but Prince of Persia broke the $100 million mark. With the recent success of Harry Potter, and the inevitable big money openings we can expect from the latest in the Chronicles of Narnia series and Disney’s Tron sequel, by the end of the year live action family movies will be nearly on a par with their animated peers financially.
Why, then, have family orientated films exploded in popularity recently? One factor that may have played a part is the recent global recession. Yes, you would expect that in a depressed economic climate, financial success would be more unlikely. However, with families forced to tighten their belts over the past couple of years, a lot of the entertainment budget for a typical family has been put to other uses. Now, instead of Mum and Dad going out for dinner, or on nights out with friends, and kids being taken to clubs and sports and the like, a family trip to the cinema looks to actually be a cheaper prospect. A £7 cinema ticket is cheaper nowadays than two pints of beer, or a bottle of wine, so is far more economically viable per person than a night on the town with friends. Combining everyone’s leisure time also means they can spend more quality time together.
Another part of the reason is that family movies are far more appealing now than they used to be to a lot of adults. Where once animated films were seen as childish and aimed solely at children, this perception has changed thanks in large part to the original Toy Story. Animated movies have become far more sophisticated. Pixar successfully combined adult humour with kid friendly slapstick action, and all the other studios began to follow suit. Now, it isn’t unusual for a an animated movie to be written with adults in mind first, and the kids second. Wall*E, for example, was actually quite boring to many young children, and achieved its popularity thanks to the appreciation of its adult audience.
With CGI now becoming more affordable, and available, live action family movies are also better equipped to sell to a broad audience. The action in family movies used to be confined to slapstick and pratfalls, but more affordable computer effects mean massive worlds can be used to entice adults and children alike. Films like Harry Potter would have been very difficult to make in a realistic way years ago, and the animatronics and plastic sets would have probably looked far too cheap and silly for a lot of the grown up audience to contemplate paying money to see. It is now far easier for the mature audience to buy into the worlds being created, as fantasy figures and locations are able to look much slicker and more realistic.
In the case of Harry Potter, it is also very much the themes explored and the richness of the original source material that have made the movies a must see experience. Adults were already engrossed in the novels before the first film was released, and in many cases the parents were looking forward to seeing the films as much, if not more than their offspring. This success has lead to similar types of book series being written, and adapted, like The Golden Compass and Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. It has also seen older works like The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe dusted off to capitalise on this newfound interest in magical family adventure.
Only time will tell if the family movie boom will continue on for an extended period of time. Certainly, there are many external factors that influence cinematic tastes and trends. A major upturn in the economy, another massive global event, or even just the introduction of a new favourite source material amongst movie makers could all change the dynamic overnight. For now, however, family films rule the box office. With Harry Potter and Megamind still going strong, Tangled now on release, and Voyage of the Dawn Treader and Tron: Legacy imminent, it is going to be a family affair in theatres this Christmas. Maybe that’s just as it should be.
Bazmann – You can follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/baz_mann