Reality TV's big-screen test

In the end, it was an all-out race: Which studio could get its sand- and skin-filled chronicle of spring-break partying into the theaters first.

Would it be Universal Pictures, whose film "The Quest" follows seven University of Colorado men on a journey to help one of their number lose his virginity? Or New Line Pictures' equally sex-obsessed "The Real Cancún."

With its movie in the multiplexes a mere month after filming ended, New Line won. And today, college students everywhere can flock to see wet T-shirt contests, tequila body shots, and the nail-biting suspense of whether Sky and Paul will actually hook up.

As surprising as it might seem, the movies are not significant for any artistic merit, but because they represent the first time the reality TV genre has hit the big screen.

Consequently, they're posing a question that millions of Americans are breathlessly waiting to know: Has the reality craze finally peaked or does this transition to a new medium represent a new beginning for the genre?

Already, the ratings of many reality shows on TV are declining. The new movies will test whether the phenomenon's 15 minutes of fame are up or whether people may be willing to pay $9.50 at the box office to see it expanded.

For Hollywood, the economics are tempting - "Cancún" cost a paltry $10 million.

But that doesn't automatically mean it will work. "At 3 in the morning, on a 19-inch screen, 'Blind Dates' is a pretty interesting experience. It wouldn't be if you'd gone to a theater and paid eight bucks," says media pundit Robert Thompson of Syracuse University in New York. But "the potential is there for an entirely new form of filmmaking."

Coming soon...

The reality movie will get several box-office tests this summer. In addition to "Cancún" and "The Quest" - Universal has moved the release of its film to an unspecified date - "American Idol" fans will get "From Justin to Kelly," a cross between fiction and reality that stars the winners of Fox's breakaway show and is set - guess where? - on spring break.

But is such fare suited to multiplexes?

"I think it's more of a TV thing," says Jay Kim, a New York investment banker who is a reality TV afficionado. "The movies serve a different purpose. There are documentaries, and real movies, but I don't know that there's a middle ground that's sustainable."

Given that the movie was made by Jonathan Murray and Mary-Ellis Bunim, the same team that created MTV's show "The Real World," it's no surprise that the film is canny in its casting.

The filmmakers give us Sarah, the blond with an (absent) boyfriend who just might be tempted to look elsewhere. And Casey, the clueless model whose standard pick-line goes: "Does anybody want to make out or anything?" And then there's Alan, a geek who discovers his wild side and becomes the movie's star.

Is plying teens with alcohol ethical?

But some are questioning the movie's ethics. Using young people "creates questions about how much they're choosing to do this, or, looking back 10 years from now, if they'll feel OK about the decision that they made," says Beth Montemurro, a sociology professor at Pennsylvania State University. Other critics talk about the negative stereotypes such a film propagates for women, or the decision to offer so much alcohol to the teens.

Mr. Murray says his team was just filming what would actually happen on spring break. "We tried to keep the movie from getting mean-spirited," he says. "There were some scenes in the initial rough cut that we took out because they crossed the line."

He's hoping that the film's accessible characters, combined with the "R" rating (for nudity, sex, language, and "partying" - surely a first from the MPAA) will draw crowds.

"It takes what a TV show can do and takes it up a few notches," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co., a box- office tracking firm. Both the "South Park" movie and "Jackass: the Movie" have small-screen counterparts, he notes, but both did well because of the added raunchiness. "And just wait till the DVD!"

Even if that strategy works this time around, reality movie producers will have to realize that "people aren't watching 'Survivor' just to see people in bikinis," says Mr. Thompson. For reality movies to succeed long-term they'll need to ditch the serialized suspense, "voting off" techniques, and goofiness that have worked so well on the small screen, he says.

Judging from college students' reactions at a recent preview, "The Real Cancún" will succeed. Daniel Fernandez, a Harvard government major, admits he ended up enjoying himself. "They paid attention to the editing, brought out the humor, teased the plot lines out."

"The sad thing is," cuts in his friend, fellow Harvard student Jonathan Unger, "we know people like this."

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