There is a sequence in writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig’s wonderful debut film The Edge of Seventeen where the lead character played by Hailee Steinfeld rails against her own generation, decrying her peers’ chronic cell phone dependency and social media obsession. “I’m an old soul,” Steinfeld tells us, before detailing how she loves old movies and prefers talking to older people rather than people her own age. We’re not meant to completely believe her, though, not when we’ve already glimpsed her cyberstalking a cute boy from her school she’s too nervous to talk to and not when the film repeatedly upends all of her assumptions (e.g., her older brother’s life isn’t quite the cake walk she so enviously believes it to be).
As per the title, she’s not yet 17, semi-intelligent enough to somewhat convincingly present herself to the world as a finished product when in fact she’s still in the process of becoming whoever she’ll end up being as an adult. In reality, she’s remarkably narcissistic, and she makes plenty of mistakes.
In other word, she’s a teenager, the type of character many actual teenagers could likely relate to. Such a shame then that Edge of Seventeen has turned into a box office flop, exiting the top 10 after just 3 weeks and a meager domestic gross of $12.7 million, well short of the break-even point based on the $9 million production budget. The specific reason for this financial failure is likely due to timing. Releasing a coming of age high school comedy at this time of the year doesn’t make sense. Moreover, with its R-Rating Edge of Seventeen is technically forbidden viewing for anyone who is actually on the edge of 17 or lower (unless they have a parent or older whoever with them.
“I’m sorry it’s not doing better,” was one of the first things my fellow WeMinoredInFilm writer Julianne said after our screening of the film ended this weekend. We mutually mused that they just don’t make movies like Edge of Seventeen anymore, i.e., insightful, heartfelt looks at the American teenage experience.
Of course, that’s blatantly false. These movies still get made (look at last year’s Diary of a Teenage Girl, pictured above), but not nearly as often nor with as much fanfare and publicity as they used to. I grew up in the age of Clueless, She’s All That, 10 Things I Hate About You, Never Been Kissed, American Pie, Drive Me Crazy, Whatever It Takes, Bring It On and just about anything else parodied in Not Another Teen Movie (starring a young Chris Evans as a Freddy Prinze, Jr. stand-in). My oldest brother grew up with Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Risky Business, The Outsiders, The Karate Kid, The Brat Pack and a seemingly endless run of Porky‘s knock-offs and slasher movies starring deadmeat teenagers. Those that came after us had slimmer pickens but they still got Mean Girls, Juno, Superbad and Easy A.
That’s not to say every film listed above is a classic or could necessarily be called good with a straight face. It’s not even fair to compare Edge of Seventeen to She’s All That, both very different kinds of movies despite their similar settings. Still, these high school movies, regardless of whether or not they were more serious-minded or formulaic “let’s get laid” hack jobs, used to get made in bulk. When did that stop? And why?
The second part is easier to answer because it’s the same exact answer any time you ask, “Why doesn’t Hollywood make [insert name of genre of sub-genre] anymore?” It’s always because those types of movies simply stopped making money thus forcing Hollywood to move onto something else. It’s what brought about the end of the western and romantic-comedy as dominant genres. If you ask that question in relation to anything in Hollywood over the past decade the answer must also include a consideration of the worldwide box office as well as an acknowledgment of the death of home video. The high school movie is sadly on the wrong side of history in both of these areas.
Cable TV and VCRs are why high school movies overtook the 80s. Ditto for DVDs and the second round of high school movies in the 90s. However, that safety net is gone or at least greatly diminished, peaking in 2004 before entering a sharp decline, dropping 47% decline since 2010. It’s likely no coincidence that the major Hollywood studios seemed to lose faith in the high school genre starting around 2007 when Superbad hit big but did not lead to any knock-off hits, with but a handful of vaguely similar films (anyone remember Youth in Revolt?) released between it and 21 Jump Street in 2012.
On top of that, outside of the American Pie franchise high school movies have never been big sellers at the international box office, likely owing to general cultural differences. And anything that doesn’t play well worldwide is a non-starter for most studios. So, bye-bye, high school movies. Hope you’re happy going straight-to-video and populating the dark corners of Netflix, reminding people just how many National Lampoon-branded sex comedies have been cranked out in recent years.
It’s not just simple economics, though. It’s also about shifting viewing patterns. According to the MPAA, 12-17 year olds had the highest per capita film attendance of any age group in 2015, and represent 11% of all moviegoers. Point being, teenagers still go to movies, standing as one of the industry’s key demographics along with little kids and twentysomethings. As such, the entire industry has shifted to cater to anyone below the age of 29, feeding them a steady diet of animation, comic books, micro-budget horror and other such escapist entertainment. What use is there for reality-based high school comedies when an entire generation has no reason to expect to see such films after having been raised on Twilight and Hunger Games? Of course, using “reality-based” in reference to some of the party movies of the past or cartoonish high schools populated by the next Alicia Silverstone stretches the definition, but it’s at least more real than vampires and dystopias.
On the plus side, the death of the assembly line high school comedy has given rise to more mature high school and teen-centric movies, usually (though not always) produced through the indie circuit. Edge of Seventeen is but the latest example, distributed by China-backed mini-major studio STX, which is also on the hook for the upcoming The Space Between Us. These kinds of movies are arguably better and more mature than they ever have been before, tackling food insecurity (American Honey), race identity (Dope), alcoholism (The Spectacular Now), sexual abuse (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and cancer (The Fault In Our Stars).
Oce upon a time Hollywood didn’t make any movies about or marketed toward teenagers, be they cheap comedies or smart dramas. As PopCultureFiend wrote, “From the mid-50s (when Hollywood first began depicting the lives of young people onscreen in films like Rebel Without a Cause and The Blackboard Jungle) all the way through the 1970s, only a small handful of pictures were being made featuring teenagers (or early twentysomethings) in starring roles. Typically, rather than offering an examination of young people’s lives (in either a real or imagined way) these films were quick, lightweight attempts to cash in on a young star’s presumably limited fame and box office appeal.”
That all changed thanks to Porky’s and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which respectively kicked off successive waves of teen comedies and dramas all the way into the aughts. However, one of the lasting legacies of Hollywood’s recent desperate, but understandable embrace of China and globalism as well as the concurrent rise of superior programming on cable TV and Netflix will be that this is when we were all re-trained as to what kinds of movies we’ll pay to see. Increasingly and with rare exception, The Edge of Seventeens of the world just don’t cut it anymore unless they come with a built-in audience like The Fault in Our Stars. Time was, of course, the built-in audience for a high school movie was simply any and all teenagers in America, but times change. The next Molly Ringwald isn’t boring born into stardom on screen but through YouTube, and Hailee Steinfeld can have one of the hottest singles in America with millions of Spotify streams and YouTube hits for her music video but still struggle to open a movie.
Such a shame because The Edge of Seventeen is so, so good. It’ll find its audience eventually.
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Sources: BoxOfficeMojo, The-Numbers.com, PopCultureFiend