Streamers Redefine Family Movies: "We Call Our Films Clean Teen"

The Half of It; A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting; Stargirl; The Sleepover; Secret Society of Second-Born Royals.
BABYSITTER’S: JUSTINA MINTZ/NETFLIX. SLEEPOVER: CLAIRE FOLGER/NETFLIX. HALF: KC BAILEY/NETFLIX. STARGIRL: MARK HILL/THE CW. SECRET: COURTESY OF DISNEY+

(From left) 'The Half of It'; 'A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting'; 'Stargirl'; 'The Sleepover'; 'Secret Society of Second-Born Royals'

Original titles geared toward younger audiences haven't been a theatrical draw for decades, but Disney and Netflix are devoting more resources to a category that still attracts tens of millions of viewers.

No sex. No drugs. No violence. Now, streaming. "We call some of our films 'clean teen,'" says Naketha Mattocks, the director of family features at Netflix. "The ones that feature teens that will speak to younger audiences, as well. They are so clean that tweens can watch them too."

Even before COVID-19 caused theaters to shut down, televisions, tablets and phones had become the destination for original movies aimed at teens but designed for family viewing thanks in large part to Disney Channel. Now such titles have become a priority for streamers including Netflix, which is exploring more varied themes in its programming, including LBGTQ+ issues.

While family films have remained top box office draws for decades, original features — those that aren't animated, live-action versions of animated classics or based on existing IP (see Diary of a Wimpy Kid) — have become virtually extinct at the theaters. Only two cracked the top 100 highest-grossing features in 2019, Paramount's Playing With Fire and 20th Century's The Kid Who Would Be King. Still, the genre that has a target demo of 6-16 — and their parents, of course — remains in demand, if not in the multiplex. "It's harder to compete in the theatrical market that has become so eventized," says Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Boxoffice.com. "It's more incentive for movies to go to other platforms."

While Apple and HBO Max are targeting a decidedly older audience with their original features, Netflix is now doubling down on the family-friendly teen genre, which is marked by low to middling budgets and high returns on viewership.

One of the most popular titles from Mattocks' slate, Tall Girl, was watched by 49 million accounts in its first four weeks, per Netflix. (Netflix's standard metric clocks a view when a user watches at least two minutes of a title.) Netflix's other "clean teen" titles like Feel the Beat and Tribeca winner The Half of It racked up 38 million and 30 million views respectively in their first four weeks. By comparison, Spike Lee's Da 5 Bloods drew 27 million in a similar time frame.

The latest, A Babysitter's Guide to Monster Hunting, debuted Oct. 15, and the streamer is continuing to invest in the space. Mattocks, who joined in 2018 from Disney Channel, and her team are averaging eight features a year (including acquisitions), and the streamer is locking down key talent in the genre, including a first-look deal with Home Alone and Harry Potter helmer Chris Columbus and an overall pact with Kenny Ortega (High School Musical, The Descendants).

Disney, which has been producing eventized family features for decades, is also beginning to transition the genre into the streaming age, now having a proprietary streaming service at its disposal in addition to its cable network. Lauren Kisilevsky, vp original movies, recently spearheaded the label's first straight-to-streaming live-action release in September with Disney+'s Secret Society of Second-Born Royals. Kisilevsky, who has worked on dozens of Disney Channel Original Movies, including the 2014 Zendaya starrer Zapped, notes that the development process largely remains the same whether features are destined for a linear or streaming release. But, she adds, "When we are getting close to production, tonally we can go more sophisticated for Plus because the audience [is] a little older than on Channel."

Genre stalwart Ortega, who just released the series Julie and the Phantoms on Netflix and is working with Mattocks' team on the holiday feature Auntie Claus, also lauds the receptivity of contemporary viewership. "Young people today are a lot more open-minded," says Ortega. "That's the world. That's the audience." Netflix's recent family films tackle issues like body positivity and LGBTQ+ identity, and execs and creatives are effusive about a focus on diversity and inclusion.

Surmises Kisilevsky: "Walking into a lunch room and figuring out where you are going to sit is going to be a challenge no matter what, but those tables look very different. Binaries are good for storytelling but are very not real in a kid's experiences. From a teen movie perspective, [the question] 'Am I a jock or am I an artist?' doesn't exist anymore."

And while streamers may not be beholden to satisfying the traditional four-quadrant theatrical market, Mattocks notes that at Netflix she is making content for a decidedly international viewership: "Our audience is global, and we want all of these kids to feel connected."

With the continued proliferation of streaming, those in the genre are looking at how to evolve. Netflix is developing a slate of hour-long features for young viewers transitioning from animation to live-action.  "You wouldn’t be hard-pressed to find articles or people being vocal in comments sections,” says Mattocks, who monitors online spaces like social media to compile more anecdotal information about audience wants and desires.

In streaming, Kisilevsky also sees an opportunity to revive tenets of a bygone live-action era of family films, like Home Alone and other beloved '80s and '90s titles. "Those pure lower-budget, higher-concept family comedies haven't been in fashion from a financial perspective for some time," she says. "There has been such a shift with the theatrical family experience, but there is a white space in the streaming business for more of that high-concept family film."

A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.