Trends and analysis.

That's the name of the game.

Sure we can make movies. Sure we can sell ‘em like hamburgers. And sometimes, here in Hollywood, we can even make you like ‘em -- even when they're no good for you. And this is why we need to examine the battlefield post-battle so that the next hamburger goes down that much easier.

Thank God for my buddy Franklin Zeitgeist. He's my can't-be-named marketing source who reads the tea leaves of this movie mayhem and analyzes all. And every once in a while, even though I'm not supposed to, I get a copy of The Zeitgeist Report slipped under my door to peruse for myself.

A lot of it is technical stuff, so I have to call up Mr. Z and get him to explain the charts and graphs. And while I'm only allowed to talk to him on a "land line," and then only in code, I get a needed explanation of the readout. One thing is certain here in the post-first quarter of 2004, Mr. Zeitgeist is twitchy with excitement at what it all means.

The Girl Next Door conundrum

Everyone had high hopes for The Girl Next Door. It's "Risky Business with a porn star." Get it? It had a lot of buzz and a lot of promotion and then just never opened. And a lot of people were taken aback (a.k.a. pissed). The target market -- 13 year-old boys -- the ones who actually show up for movies, identify with porn, don't they? And porn stars are just amped-up prostitutes right? It's the "edgy" way to update Risky Business -- and yet no one showed up. How come? "Porn stars are icky," Mr. Zeitgeist concludes. "That's the lesson to be learned from this teen comedy." And apparently Mr. Zeitgeist's golden gut tells him more. "Not only are teen comedies dead in the marketplace, but raising the stakes of the naughtiness, being franker about sexuality, doesn't help. At this point in time, America isn't in the mood. There's a war on, the economy's slow. It's not 1997. And overt erotica, even the hint of it, is out." This goes double for Tween girl movies. With Mean Girls, 13 Going On 30, New York Minute and Confessions of a Drama Queen all tanking, narrowcasting for teen girls doesn't work either. Socially, boys rule the metroplex. "Let's be real," says Mr. Z. "Girls will go with boys to see Boy Movies, but boys won't go with girls to see Girl Movies." What's a studio executive to do? "Call The Rock," says Mr. Z. "Make movies for boys with a star girls like too and you've got something. Girls don't mind a little bloodshed onscreen and like action as much as boys. Something like Van Helsing draws them all."

Passion Of the Christ = Fox News but do we care?

The nasty little bur under Hollywood's saddle continues to be Mel Gibson's With Nail And I. Coming up on $370 million on domestic box office, Mel successfully did the one thing entrepreneurs are supposed to do -- find a need and fill it. And yet its success is a puzzler. Like the Fox News Network, the little cable outlet that beats CNN by offering an alternative viewpoint for the Red States Of America, PassionOf The Christ shows there is an untapped audience. And if they're driven by traditional values, why not give them more of the same? God knows they show up. So why not make what the Red States want, like a balls-out patriotic biography of The Pat Tillman Story or something with red, white and blue in its veins? Why not be the Fox News of movies? Yet no one in Hollywood dares to "go there." Why? "It's icky," explains Mr. Zeitgeist. "Not for the audience, but for the studio executives." Apparently it is a whistle that Hollywood does not hear, or understand. And so they have decided to chalk up Passion to an anomaly. "At some point, someone will dare to be different again, and give that audience something they want, but they'll face a social hurdle. Hollywood admires Mel, but no one wants to be Mel."

How about an "urban" Animal House?

Another trend that is popping up big time, and shows no sign of letting up, is the idea of taking a hackneyed, high concept poster movie from the ‘70s or ‘80s and making it "hip" by casting so-called "urban" stars. Last week it was announced that Cedric The Entertainer would reprise Rodney Dangerfield's role in Back To School. This adds to the long list of efforts that include the upcoming Soul Plane the remake of Airplane!,Love Don't Cost A Thing, the hip-hop re-do of Can't Buy Me Love, and Johnson Family Vacation, better known as Vacation in the hood (without Chevy Chase). These movies draw comedy fans from all demographics, and the creative laziness doesn't seem to bother anybody. "It's icky," says Mr. Zeitgeist. "But it's not going away." Look for announcements of more "hip," "urban" comedies just as soon as studio executives can grab their TV Guides and make a quick phone call to Darryl Quarles whose Big Mama's House (Mrs. Doubtfire with Martin Lawrence)gave Hollywood the map.

It's a movie, it's a game, it's a toy!

The biggest influence on movies is video games, Mr. Zeitgeist states quite frankly. And movies are becoming more and more just the big screen versions of the game you can play at home. Take a movie like Van Helsing, the mummified Steven Sommers pic (without the mummy). It is a video game. All that's missing is an in-theater joystick on the side of every seat. The problem is -- no story. But the target -- 13-year-old boys -- don't know from story. They are satisfied with action and explosions and just a hint of sex. Compare and contrast with a movie like Raiders Of The Lost Ark that looks like Battleship Potemkin compared to the video game/movies that get made today. But audiences don't care, and if audiences don't care then that's what Hollywood makes. "This trend started several years ago," snarls Mr. Z. "The minute executives began referring to movies as ‘product' you knew things had changed." So be prepared for more "product."

Summer Of The Adult

Finally, in what seems to be a brilliant marketing coup, Hollywood will attempt to woo adults back into the theater in the months ahead. In what's being called "The Summer Of The Adult," movies with sophisticated themes and slower, less explosion-laden stories will be trying to lure those over 40 back to the movies. This winter's Something's Gotta Give, featuring the withered lip lock of Jack Nicholson and Dianne Keaton, worked -- at least financially. Gray is Gold! is the new mantra. And Hollywood is taking this cue to see if films like The Manchurian Candidate, Stepford Wives and The Terminal, starring Tom Hanks, will bring back the world's most long-neglected and habitual moviegoers. "Let's face it," says Mr. Z. "Hollywood thinks kids being let out of school is the golden opportunity to get them to see a movie, yet here is a demographic that's up to its AARP card with free time and disposable income and nobody cares." In the future, look for more senior sex moments, like those in Something's Gotta Give, to be headed our way. It's revolutionary! It's outlandish! "It's icky. Like way!" says Mr. Z, trying to be hip. And when I finally called him on this, Mr. Z confessed that while it's his job he doesn't have to like what he sees. "I don't make up the trends I just report ‘em," he says realistically. "Look, if cat autopsies became popular they'd flood the market with them, too. My job is not to judge trends, just to know ‘em."

He's right, of course, just look at all those reality shows that are on TV. Someone's watching those things. And just because I don't like them doesn't mean I shouldn't try to understand. They're icky! But they're popular.

And that's what being Mr. Zeitgeist is all about.