SHERMAN OAKS, CALIF. — Gayla and Jeffrey Hartsough and their preteen son, Jeff, like going to the movies together.
Lately, they've found the glowing marquee at an 18-screen theater complex here offers more options than ever. And not just because their soccer-playing middle-schooler is getting older.
"The industry is definitely trying to put out more movies geared toward families," says Mrs. Hartsough, pointing to a slew of top box-office attractions such as "Spider-Man," "Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones," "Lord of the Rings," and "The Rookie."
Every week, she adds, it seems another appealing option for their whole clan hits the silver screen. Last weekend brought "Attack of the Clones," which rang up an estimated $116 million in its first four days of release, making it a blockbuster.
And this Friday the studio that created the Oscar-winning animated feature "Shrek," one of last year's biggest critical and box-office hits, will open its latest G-rated film, "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron."
Theater owners across the country agree: Hollywood has discovered the allure of the family-friendly film. In early May, "Spider-Man" broke box-office records with a $114 million opening weekend take. "Ice-Age," an animated G-rated film about prehistoric critters that debuted earlier this year, has pulled in more than $171 million.
"We're getting a lot more of better G- and PG-rated films than just a few years ago," says Haydn Silleck, president of Colorado Cinema, a Denver-based theater chain. "And we're getting a lot more families going to the movies."
But while studios making movies with broader appeal may be a return to the glory days of epic films for all ages, the idea of families actually attending films together is relatively new, says Pamela Ezell, an assistant professor of English and film at Chapman University in Orange, Calif.
"Back in the '60s and '70s even the '80s movies were a place you could drop your kids off and come back and get them," Professor Ezell says. Or parents would leave children at home with a baby sitter. "And back in the '30s and '40s, when movies began as a popular phenomenon, kids went to the Saturday matinees, and adults went at night. There wasn't that much family filmgoing."
A number of social and economic factors are now filling theaters with more families than ever before. Today, even the worst seats for pro sports teams carry double-digit prices, and teens can command up to 10 bucks an hour for baby-sitting. It helps when the movies are the cheapest date in town.
"It gives the family the opportunity for something to do that's not priced out of the working man's budget," says Harold Spears, president of Sun South Theaters, a Florida-based chain of drive-ins. "It's especially true of our drive-ins," he adds, which charge $3 per person with children under 10 free.
"It's too expensive to go to the movies by ourselves and leave the kids with a baby sitter," Ezell says. She and her husband, who have children ages 2 and 5, say they look for movies to see as a group for simple economic reasons. "So if there's anything vaguely worth seeing together, we'll try to take them."
Even when money is not an issue, time can be especially for working couples.
"A lot of gourmet parents with little time are guilty about not doing enough with their kids," Ezell says. "Movies are easier than the beach or the zoo, and they're not all that expensive relative to other options."
Beyond that, she adds, both parents and children are far more sophisticated than previous generations, widening the definition of what is considered to be a family film.
Hollywood insiders are succumbing to the power of the family unit as well.
Studios like Miramax are creating what chief Harvey Weinstein calls his "Teddy Projects," family films that response to the boffo box-office numbers rung up by this genre. And some creative types who are parents themselves say they want to keep their films family friendly. "I wanted to make something I could take my own kids to," says Robert Rodriguez, director of last year's hit "Spy Kids" and this summer's sequel. "I didn't want to make something we couldn't all see."
But do kids really like going to the movies with their parents? Jeff Hartsough does. "If I went with my friends, they'd probably just take the movie for what it is and think, 'That's it," says the soon-to-be teenager. But "with my parents, I like to talk about deeper things in the movie, not just the straightforward conclusions. Why something happened, why I didn't get something."
Gayla says that films have become a uniting experience for the family. "We have season [live] theater tickets, but until really recently, there hasn't been anything appropriate for us to take [Jeff] to there," says Mrs. Hartsough, an education consultant. "We like to talk about the movies afterward, so it has become a great source of family bonding," she says.