"For Girls": Hollywood, the Date-Movie Market, and Early-1980s Teen Sex Comedies

By Nowell, Richard | Post Script, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

"For Girls": Hollywood, the Date-Movie Market, and Early-1980s Teen Sex Comedies


Nowell, Richard, Post Script


Between 1981 and 1984, Hollywood and powerful independent American distributors like Cannon Films embraced teen sex comedies as part of their systematic effort to serve America's prime youth audience with products tailored specifically for its needs. (1) This shift in consumer segmentation practice can be traced back to the impressive box office performances of several late-1970s releases, (2) including Carrie (De Palma 1976), Saturday Night Fever (Badham 1977), and Grease (Kleiser 1978). (3) Even though such developments all but guaranteed youth-oriented fare places on powerful distributors' release slates, the exact types of film these companies aimed to young people changed rapidly (Shary Generation; Nowell "There's"). For example, in the two-and-a-half years from early 1978 to summer 1980, confidence drifted from gang movies to roller disco movies to raucous comedies and to slasher movies (Nowell "Hollywood"). The perceived economic viability of these low-cost investments precipitated rapid cycles of over-production, market saturation, declining returns, and searches for new, commercially viable models (Ibid.). In late 1981, market conditions indicated hitherto unseen levels of profit potential for amusing renditions of adolescent sexual misadventure. (4) The intervention of the industry's heavyweights would transform such films from a marginal form handled by drive-in specialists like Crown International Pictures into arguably the most high-profile trend of its day. Predictably, by 1985, independent distributors had flooded theaters with cut-price efforts a la Screwballs (Zielinski 1983), leading to the atomization of ticket sales and to the major companies eschewing teen sex comedies until the financial success of American Pie (Heitz & Heitz 1999) some fourteen years later. (5) Although small outfits occasionally distributed such films in the intervening period, it was the major releases of the earlier 1980s which exerted the greatest influence on industrial and critical understandings of the genre.

This being said, existing academic treatments indicate how little we actually know about the industrial dynamics of early-1980s teen sex comedies. Considering these films to be supremely male-youth-oriented fare, scholars have read Porky's (Clark 1981), The Last American Virgin (Davidson 1982), and others as attempts to process fissures in male identity (see Paul 461 n.3). Thus, where Lesley Speed suggests they thematize "a crisis in young, middle-class men's presumed right to behave hedonistically on other people's territory" (820; see also Thiessen), Timothy Shary argues that they portray loss of virginity as an emotional challenge for young men ("Virgin"). Yet, the purported male-youth-orientation of the early-1980s teen sex comedies derives from analyses that concentrated on depictions of young men and assumed a male spectator. The extent to which such an assumption stands at odds to the industry's handling of these films is highlighted by Universal Pictures' marketing of Private School (Black 1983). Emblazoned across print advertising materials was a candid declaration of consumer targeting that simply read "... for girls" (see fig. 1).

The production history of Private School casts additional light on the value industry decision-makers placed on angling early-1980s teen sex comedies to male and female youth. In late 1981, the driving force behind this film, R. Ben Efraim, invited industry analyst Lee Grant to cover the project from preproduction through to release. Grant published his account in the Los Angeles Times as an extended article entitled "The Private Diary of a Movie" (1983). (6) This six-page report detailed how a team of pragmatic entrepreneurs had attempted to fashion a teen sex comedy that would be marketable and appealing to both sexes. It explained that Efraim had hired the market researcher Joe Farrell "to ask about such factors as T&A [partial female nudity]: How much of a turn on to males? …

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