WE TRIED, heavens knows we tried, to find a movie to take our 5-year-old to the other night. We're still a little woozy from the experience.
We checked the marquee of the local multiplex. We scoured the newspaper listings. Finally, we capitulated. Surrendering to the egregious hype, we went to see "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." For our $15, we got 85 minutes of violence and the most brainless dialogue since "Enter the Dragon." Yes, I know: your kids loved it. Our son fell asleep.
This is, unfortunately, the lot of the modern parent.
The success of "Turtles" says one important thing about the state of what used to be known as "family entertainment" in the movie business -- namely, that there isn't very much of it anymore. Families that still cling to the increasingly quaint notion that movie-going can be a shared experience have to take the few choices they have or leave them. Hollywood, which is otherwise so adept at "targeting" its output at various types of audiences (teens, young women, etc.) has virtually abandoned the family during the past decade.
Defining what is, and what is not, a "family movie" is admittedly subjective. But take a look at one very objective measure: the number of G-rated releases, the films deemed suitable for general audiences. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, 838 G-rated movies were released between 1968 (the year the ratings system began) and 1979. During the 1980s, the number of G movies totaled a mere 106. Last year, the most successful in the history of the movie industry, only nine films (out of the 472 that received an MPAA rating) were rated G.
True, many movies in the PG category are otherwise "suitable for all ages" ("E.T." for one). But for the parents of a young child, anything other than a G film can be a minefield. Is "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," in which a still-beating heart is ripped from a man's chest, appropriate for a 5-year-old?
What strikes me as odd about the lack of variety is that families constitute one of the largest potential markets for movies. The so-called Baby Boomlet, the progeny of the Baby Boom, totals 43 million children under 12. The discretionary dollars lavished on this group add up to nearly $6 billion a year, or so some marketing studies suggest. Surely, this a ripe audience for films that fall somewhere outside the thematic range spanned by "Gremlins 2" and "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!" Why then has the number of new movies designed to appeal to this group fallen so dramatically in the past 10 years?
David Hoberman, the president of Walt Disney Pictures, suggests that the major studios don't produce many family-oriented films because families tend to take in movies only on weekends and during holiday periods. Parents with young children represent "a two-day-a-week business," he says. "Everyone likes seven-day business." To extend that point a bit, my suspicion is that the big film studios don't produce many theatrical features for families because they no longer have to. The Saturday matinee has been replaced by the modern electronic baby-sitter, the VCR. Since children seem content to watch a video a dozen or more times, the studios have done a tidy business simply by issuing video versions of their old films (witness the phenomenal video success of "Wizard of Oz," "Bambi," "Cinderella," and "E.T."). With the theatrical market clogged with adult-oriented movies, children's video producers avoid the huge marketing expense of a theatrical release by going straight to the video store.
Without Disney, in fact, new family-oriented titles might cease to exist entirely. Despite its tilt in recent years toward grown-up films (through its Touchstone subsidiary and Hollywood Pictures studio), Disney still turns out such highly competent and successful children's entertainments as "The Little Mermaid," and "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids." The company also periodically releases in theaters those of its classics it hasn't already put out on videocassette. The theatrical re-release of "The Jungle Book" this summer will be an enormous hit, not just because of its own charm but because of the dearth of competition for the family trade.
As a parent, I find the experience of watching a video with my son much less satisfying than watching a movie in a theater. Part of this is the simple technical superiority of theater sound and projection, but a more important part is played by sentiment. Some of the happiest moments of my early childhood were spent in the company of my mother and grandfather at the theaters near our home in Brooklyn. Some of the movies we saw were happy-go-lucky junk, like "Ride the Wild Surf," and some were classics, like "Mary Poppins." The thing was, we had a choice. A new movie seemed to arrive every Saturday at the Brook, the Marine and the Nostrand.
A video can't duplicate that rich childhood experience. Sitting together in the dark theater, we shared an awesome world far removed from our own. And no one could explain this world (or ease my fear or enjoy my laughter) better than the adult sitting next to me. How many millions of adults can, like me, trace the arch of their childhood by the mileposts of movies?
When I was 13, this world irrevocably changed. My mother and I went to see a movie called "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," which, unbeknownst to her, revolved around a brothel in the Old West. Naturally, there was plenty of violence and a fair amount of nudity. Being in the midst of puberty, I loved it. My mother, on the other hand, seemed uncomfortable, though she never said anything about it. We never went to the movies together after that.
Now, living a continent apart from my parents, we sometimes remember our common history at the local movie theaters. We were together, happy for a few hours. I hope my son will be able to say the same someday.
Paul Farhi is a Washington Post reporter.