Generations of Americans can still remember a time when parents and their kids could go to the multiplex and enjoy original youth-oriented films that weren’t either animated, part of a billion-dollar superhero franchise, or adaptations of overwrought young adult novels. While elaborate, big-budget movies like the Hunger Games series and Marvel films might be creative and loaded with special effects, they don't compare to the youth movies produced during the 1980s: a decade that saw an extraordinary crop of pictures whose like hasn't been seen since.
Thirty years ago, 1985 marked the zenith for films aimed at younger audiences, across genres ranging from action-adventure to sci-fi to fantasy. With the exception of E.T., slasher films, puerile teen comedies, and Chuck Norris movies had dominated the early ’80s box office, but things started to change in 1984 with huge hits like Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Gremlins. This trend peaked the following year, which saw a hodgepodge of underperforming cult classics and smash hits such as Back to the Future, The Goonies, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and Clue, as well as a score of teen-angst dramas and comedies such as The Breakfast Club. It was a short-lived crest in artistic innovation and creativity: After 1985, the number of youth-oriented films dwindled each year, leaving the genre almost dead by the end of the decade.
What these films had in common was that they were mainly based on original ideas, they were fairly cheap to make, and—despite many being rated PG—they had an edginess that rarely appears in children’s movies today. In Roger Ebert’s 1985 review of The Goonies, he captured how the new crop of films refused to patronize their audiences.
There used to be children’s movies and adult movies. Now Spielberg has found an in-between niche, for young teenagers who have fairly sophisticated tastes in horror … His technique is to take his thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds and let them act a little older than their age. It’s more refreshing than the old Disney technique, which was to take characters of all ages and have them behave as if they were twelve.
The Goonies had an audacious premise, following a group of pre-teens chasing treasure in a small coastal town while a maniacal Italian family pursued them. It was marketed as a fun-filled adventure, but the prospect of sudden death lurked around every booby-trapped corner, and Spielberg also incorporated anxiety about financial security and status that was surely familiar to many older children.
Back to the Future—an original script by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, directed by Zemeckis, and executive-produced by Steven Spielberg—still hasn't lost its luster in 2015, despite a time-travel plot that sees Marty McFly forced to date his own mother. In The New York Times’ 1985 review of the film, critic Janet Maslin rewarded the director for his audacity, describing how “[Zemeckis] handles Back to the Future with the kind of inventiveness that indicates he will be spinning funny, whimsical tall tales for a long time to come.” “Inventiveness” is the key word when it comes to analyzing why the film was such hit. “Ultimately, that’s what made the movie successful, because it was a little bit edgy, but it was done in a fun way,” Zemeckis told Empire in 2010. “We resolved it in a way that gave the audience a tremendous sense of relief. So it works. It was a great marketing hook and it worked emotionally to provide an entertaining wallop in the movie.”
A PG movie with those themes couldn’t be made today thanks to the dominance of the PG-13 rating, which bifurcated films for younger audiences after it was introduced in 1984. The Motion Picture Association of America introduced the new rating shortly after Gremlins was released; it advised parents to be “strongly” cautious, as “some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.” The advent of PG-13 leveled the playing field and allowed for more adult content in some movies, but it also marginalized audiences aged 12 and under, who couldn’t see the PG-13 rated Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome or Young Sherlock Holmes. (Meanwhile, 1986’s Top Gun, a film that includes a steamy love scene between Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis, somehow garnered a PG rating.) Today, most superhero and YA films are rated PG-13, mostly limiting options for tweens to animated features and fairy-tale spinoffs.
Another factor in the decline of youth films was that visionaries like Zemeckis, Spielberg, Richard Donner, and John Hughes simply aged out of the genre. In 1985, Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment produced BTTF, The Goonies, and Young Sherlock Holmes, but the end of the year also saw the release of the Spielberg-helmed The Color Purple. In 1988, Zemeckis directed the adult-centric animated film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, followed by two BTTF sequels, Death Becomes Her, and Forrest Gump. Two years after The Goonies, Richard Donner launched the Lethal Weapon franchise. And after John Hughes finished the last work in his teen trilogy, 1986’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, he wrote the Pretty In Pink rip-off Some Kind of Wonderful, and went on to direct the adult coming-of-age She’s Having a Baby (1988). Zemeckis, Donner, and Spielberg didn’t completely unmoor themselves from films aimed at young people, but they mostly turned their attention to more career-boosting films for adults.
In neglecting the kinds of youth-oriented films that proliferated in the 1980s, studios may be missing out on a key box-office demographic. In 1985, the biggest group of moviegoers was viewers aged 12 to 24. In 2013, adults over the age of 25 outnumbered kids as moviegoers, but younger audiences are growing—in 2013, according to figures released by the Motion Picture Association of America, the number of frequent moviegoers aged between 2 and 11 rose 54 percent over 2012. Yet Hollywood doesn’t seem to be paying much attention to this shift. Of the list of films released last year, only 12 seem to belong in the "family" genre, and most of those are either animated or religious movies. Since around 2001 (the advent of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings franchises), films targeting youth audiences have been either blockbusters or animated films, with hardly anything in between.
Back to the Future was the highest-grossing film of 1985: With a budget of $19 million, it made $210 in the domestic box office. Despite the healthy gross, another film wouldn’t top $200 million domestically until Batman in 1989—arguably the beginning of the superhero-movie wave. The Goonies, The Princess Bride, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off were also inexpensive to make and saw respectable profits. But it seems as though the industry today would rather invest $150 million on a tentpole movie than waste $40 million on a mid-budget film that might not break even and that won’t play well overseas.
The kinds of films that made 1985 so special probably won’t be revived any time soon, since studios have superhero movies scheduled through the end of the decade. (Steven Spielberg is, however, directing an adaptation of Roald Dahl's The BFG, scheduled for release in 2016.) But there have been recent examples proving that modern youth films can thrive. Easy A, a 2010 film starring Emma Stone that bore a distinct Hughesian influence, cost $8 million to make and grossed $75 million worldwide. J.J. Abrams' sci-fi throwback Super 8, budgeted at $50 million, grossed $260 million worldwide. When Hollywood does take financial and creative risks it can pay off, but Easy A and Super 8 remain the exception. Until a cadre of imaginative and nostalgia-fueled filmmakers can convince Hollywood to fund non-reboot and non-franchise projects, the specters of Chunk, Bender, and Marty McFly will remain relics of a truly exceptional decade.