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.