The Emergence Of The Teenager And The Rise Of Youth Audience

The most important development in low-budget independent filmmaking and, arguably, its salvation during the period of recession was the emergence of a particular audience demographic loosely labelled as youth audience. This demographic, which, according to Barry Keith Grant, covered all people from the age of 10 to 35, included three main subcategories: children, teenagers (a newly coined age group that included young individuals between the ages of 12 and 19) and the post-adolescent or young adults (between the ages of 20 and 35).5 The last two categories together represented between 70 and 80 per cent of the total film audience during the 1950s,6 but until the middle of the decade, young adults and especially teenagers had yet to see pictures specifically geared to them.

The most important of these three categories for the low-end independents was the second category, teenagers. As a distinct sociological entity the teenager was a direct product of American society and culture of the 1950s. While teenagers as a distinct group first appeared in the 1940s when a large number of adults were away on military service and therefore certain industries started acknowledging younger people as a new potential demographic,7 their emergence did not become noticeable until the following decade when conditions of economic prosperity and various cultural changes made the teenagers' presence evident. 'What lent 1950s teenagers a sense of group identity both peculiarly intense and historically new,' Thomas Doherty argues, 'was that their generational status, their social position as teenagers, was carefully nurtured and vigorously reinforced by adult institutions around them.' This suggests that for the first time teenagers were actually identified by adult groups as a 'special like-minded community bound together by age and rank', while their 'psychological and physical development was accorded a dramatically public recognition.'8 As a result the life, style and habits of teenagers became central subjects in public discourse and it was only a matter of time before teenage life became the subject of media representation.

Perhaps the most important effect of the emergence of the teenager in US society - at least from the point of view of the cultural industries - was their inclination to spend a substantial part of their disposable income (approximately 15 per cent or $1.5 billion a year) on leisure activities and cultural products, mainly films, music records and leisure magazines.9

Unlike the rest of the potential film audience who were deserting movie-going for other forms of cultural and recreational activities, teenagers emerged as the most frequent cinema-goers, refusing to follow the trends established by older generations. More importantly, teenagers emerged as the group that led forward a consumer-based US economy, increasingly becoming opinion leaders for the rest of American culture and mobilising a vast array of advertising resources for the selling of cultural products.10

With the teenage-led youth audience in place, one would have thought that it would be only a matter of time before the majors moved in and captured that market. This did not prove the case, at least not until the mid-1950s. The majors distributed only a handful of films with a teenage interest, including Stanley Kramer and Columbia's The Wild One (Benedek, 1953 - originally entitled Hot Blood), MGM's Blackboard Jungle (Brooks, 1955) and Warner's Rebel Without A Cause (Ray, 1955).11 All three films, however, were characterised by an adult perspective and seemed to emphasise juvenile delinquency as a social problem rather than targeting an audience of a particular mentality and trying to 'speak' to it.

While the majors were reluctant to address the teenage demographic, the top-rank independents (who by that time had become an integral part of the studio machine) were also unwilling or unable to undertake the task. The reason for this was simple: most of the successful top-rank independent producers were either established movie stars well over the age of 30, or hyphenates who graduated from the studio system and were even older than the former group. In the words of Peter Lev, 'the film industry's structure and the aging personnel circa 1950 were ill-equipped to make such [youth] films',12 while one should also not forget that those were very conservative times and consequently the production of films about social problems (including juvenile delinquency) was a delicate and dangerous matter.

With the majors and top-rank independents out of the picture, the road for low-end independents was wide open. Recognising early on that teenage audiences in particular want to see films about their own generation, their own problems, their own music, their own style and with their own stars and teen idols, low-budget independent producers provided them with exactly these elements. This move towards catering specifically for the youth audiences by meeting their demand for a particular type of filmed entertainment signalled the emergence of the

'teenpic', a particular type of exploitation picture that took several forms and ushered these independents to a new era of low-budget filmmaking.

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