I've spent a career investigating and dissecting what youth audiences want. While they gravitate toward the timely and contemporary, they still find great comfort in the timeless and true. It's the blend that makes for blockbusters, along with a good dose of what I term marketable artistry.
In a nationwide study that I conducted for my new book, Creating Blockbusters!, fielded by C+R Research, I asked four hundred people ages 8 to 55 what they like, dislike, and expect of today's entertainment. Here's a glimpse of what the 8 to 19 youth segment wants, as outlined in Creating Blockbusters!
Like all of us, youth audiences want a deeply emotional story. They want protagonists to face life and death struggles and to muster the bravery to achieve their full potential. These were among the top themes of over 20 tested. But to break through, the story must be served up in a dramatic, unique way. The Hunger Games comes to mind with its female protagonist and her selfless sacrifice to take her younger sister's place in a futuristic battle to the death.
Youth audiences also love narratives that tickle their fears. Children age 8 to 12 want heroes to feel the terror of making big mistakes at school (37%) and being publicly humiliated (36%). The desire for these types of characters fueled interest in Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Children this age also greatly fear spiders and snakes (35%) which undoubtedly provided a great platform for the original toy called Creepy Crawlers of the 1960's as well as kids' interest in recent reality shows such as Fear Factor. These fears are even more top of mind than the fear of death (29%). Being rejected by friends/peers is an important teen fear (36%). This provided a great foundation for many teen angst stories such as The Breakfast Club and is a more prominent issue among teens than the fear of terrorism (21%).
Youth audiences expect franchises to stay continually fresh. The Simpsons does so by addressing cultural issues related to race, religion, politics, sex, and celebrity, just as the TV show Glee uses revolving pop music artists.
While youth audiences appear to want things that are entirely new, they actually lean toward timeless products dressed up in new clothing. The recent film Avatar with its environmental message and romance between two people from different worlds is very similar to Disney's Pocahontas. Beware of being too new and different.
A key to gaining a broad youth audience (along with adults) is to take a child-like idea from the depths of kid culture and make it edgy and/or sophisticated enough for older tastes. That's what led to the broad appeal of Transformers, Harry Potter, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and even ABC's new hit, Once Upon a Time.
Youth audiences fall in love with characters that have personas they admire. The persona might be coolness (e.g., James Bond), sweetness and innocence (e.g., Cinderella), mischievousness (e.g., Hans Solo), empowerment (e.g., Mulan), and even grumpiness (e.g., Shrek). Kids want to reflect those same personalities on their T-shirts, posters, video games, and toys. Great character attitudes travel across business categories.
Youth audiences seek franchises that display marketable artistry. That is, products invented in ways that enhance their marketability. It might arise from our politics (e.g., Barbie as Presidential candidate during election periods), from an advancement in technology (e.g., James Cameron created news by advancing the performance capture technique for Avatar), from a great name that communicates (e.g., Finding Nemo), to a great tagline that comes from the essence of the story (e.g., "May the Force Be With You"), to promotional events that get consumers closer to the franchise (e.g., Power Rangers national tours).
Youth audiences listen when you use their mediums. This occurred spectacularly when the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park was announced to only seven popular Harry Potter bloggers during a secret Webcast. Excited by the news, the bloggers sent the message to thousands of followers which was then relayed by news outlets to 350 million people worldwide in just days.
Most blockbusters don't happen by accident. They are carefully conceived, developed and marketed using sound principles. The more you know about what youth audiences want, as set forth in Creating Blockbusters!, the more likely your offering will be the next Youth-buster, capturing not only kids but the kids that live in all of us.
--Gene Del Vecchio is an entertainment researcher, consultant and the author of the new book, Creating Blockbusters!