In late 2000, Sony Pictures approached Joel Gallen about directing a parody film tentatively titled Teen Movie. Gallen had spent the past 14 years directing and producing television, and one of his regular gigs was producing the MTV Movie Awards, the network’s irreverent version of the Oscars, where winners receive buckets of gold popcorn as trophies.
For the 1999 show, Gallen thought to make a spoof montage parodying the teen sex comedies nominated that year. The segment starred Jaime Pressly and Alyson Hannigan, who recreated the iconic whip cream bikini scene from from Varsity Blues and Selma Blair and Sarah Michelle Gellar’s kiss inCruel Intentions.
Sony so enjoyed the bit that they asked Gallen to direct their Teen Movie project. The past several years had seen an inordinate amount of movies about horny, lovelorn teenagers, and the fraught dynamics of teen sex and relationships — Can’t Hardly Wait, 10 Things I Hate About You and American Pie, to name just a few — and Sony wanted to skewer their tropes.
Gallen agreed, rewriting the script and tweaking its title to Not Another Teen Movie. He gave Pressly the role of Priscilla — the bitchy, Queen Bee cheerleader inspired by Bring It On — but filled the rest of the cast with unknowns, including a not-yet-famous Chris Evans. (Randy Quaid also had a bit part as an alcoholic dad.)
Set at John Hughes High School, Not Another Teen Movie makes multiple allusions to the director’s films, as well as the 1990s flicks that built upon on Hughes’ knack for capturing the anxieties of the American teenage experience. (There’s even a Molly Ringwald cameo at the end.) The movie was also unbelievably crude — one scene shows a teacher getting drenched in literal shit — and was panned by film critics. It has a lowly 29 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
But Not Another Teen Movie resonated with audiences. It spoke to their nostalgia for Hughes-era teen films, and the abundance of teen sex comedies that marked the MTV era. It earned $12.6 million its opening weekend despite opening against the first Lord of the Rings installment. And it would go on to gross nearly $40 million in total, more than twice its $15 million budget. To this day, people tweet at Gallen whenever the film pops up on a premium channel.
But these days, Not Another Teen Movie seems like a relic of a bygone era, and it’s easy to imagine its jokes being lost on today’s teenagers, in large part because Hollywood doesn’t make movies about teenagers desperate to lose their virginities anymore. The teen sex comedy, once a staple of the summer movie season, no longer exists.
Indeed, most of the teen sex comedies released after Not Another Teen Movie were low-budget retreads of more popular titles, such as 2004’s EuroTrip(inspired by 2000’s Road Trip) and 2009’s Fired Up (which is like Bring it On, but with male protagonists). Both films lost money. There were three American Pie sequels, but they focused on the characters’ lives beyond the awkwardness of high school. (American Pie also became a genre unto itself, with several straight-to-video titles released under the American Pie Presents: banner.)
Of the more original titles, most of them were flops. The Girl Next Door(2004) is something of a cult classic now, but it failed to make its money back in theaters. The To-Do List (2013) subverted the genre’s gender dynamics by having a female protagonist (Aubrey Plaza) embark on a journey of sexual self-discovery before heading off to college. But it made a paltry $3.4 million. The last highly successful teen sex comedy was 2010’s Easy A starring Emma Stone, which grossed $58.4 million on a modest $8 million budget.
“In the last 10 years or so, there really haven’t been many teen comedies at all,” says Gallen. “And if there have, they haven’t been that successful.”
It’s hard to say what killed the teen sex comedy, or why it suddenly disappeared, considering the genre’s decades-long success. Its origins trace back to the late 1970s with films like Animal House, according to L.A.-based filmmaker Craig Johnson, a student of the genre who recently sold his own, modern-day teen sex comedy to Netflix.
But the “golden era” for teen sex comedies was the 1980s, Johnson says. There were screwball comedies such as The Last American Virgin and Porky’s, which revolve around teenage boys who will go to any lengths to get laid. And Hughes “fully realized” the genre with Weird Science, Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles, films that “humanized” the tragically horny teen experience, Johnson adds.
The greatest film of the genre, he says, is 1982’s Fast Times At Ridgemont High, which explores premature ejaculation, adult men preying on high school girls, using carrots for blowjob practice, teen abortions and Judge Reinhold peeping on his sister’s hot friend while he cranks it in the family bathroom (among other salient topics). The film grossed $27 million at the box office, six times its estimated budget.
“This was the first opportunity for horny teenagers to have their dirty thoughts made explicit,” Johnson says. “Prior to then the culture hadn’t really tapped into the teenage mind.”
After that, the genre got a little “silly,” with films like Ski School that are “devoid of any sort of plot or wit or humor, and are just boob shots,” Johnson says, pointing out that these films would be considered wildly sexist by today’s standards.
But teen sex comedies made a roaring comeback in the late 1990s with Can’t Hardly Wait, 10 Things I Hate About You, She’s All That, Varsity Blues and Cruel Intentions, all of which were released between 1998 and 1999.
The movie that came to define the genre during this period was American Pie. Screenwriter Adam Herz titled his original script Untitled Teenage Sex Comedy That Can Be Made for Under $10 Million That Most Readers Will Probably Hate But I Think You Will Love.
Universal Pictures eventually bought the film and produced it with a relatively modest $11.8 million budget. But they also hedged their bets, selling off the foreign distribution rights a month before the film’s release. This was presumably out of fear that American Pie was too explicit to perform well in theaters — the film was so raunchy that it reportedly took four edits to get its rating down to an R from an NC-17.
That controversy, however, only whetted teens’ appetites for the film, and American Pie became a smash hit, grossing more than $100 million at U.S. the box office. (The film made another $132 million abroad, making Universal’s hedge look dumb in retrospect.) American Pie inspired three sequels and several more derivative titles, and launched the careers of Seann William Scott, Jason Biggs and Tara Reid. Most importantly, it popularized the term “MILF.”
Strangely, though, its success seemed to euthanize rather than energize the teen sex comedy genre. “The wave kind of died down after that,” Johnson explains.
The world had seemingly tired of the “hopeless teenage boy yearns to have sex” narrative by the mid-aughts. Instead, Hollywood explored the anxiety of adult romance and sexuality, and the characteristics and peculiarities of “bromances” (e.g. I Love You, Man; Knocked Up; Pineapple Express; Step Brothers; The 40-Year-Old Virgin; and Wedding Crashers). The only memorable teen sex comedy from the era is Superbad, and that movie is more about heterosexual bro love than it is about high schoolers trying to bone.
As Gallen points out, Hollywood stopped making teen sex comedies primarily because teen sex comedies stopped making money. EuroTrip and The Girl Next Door both lost money. Easy A was a success in 2010, but it paled in comparison to American Pie. Plus, he adds, “Teens have a lot more interests now, and that interest is dispersed,” Gallen says. The only way to get teens to a teen sex comedy would be to have a popular social media and/or Disney star such as Ariana Grande or Justin Bieber playing one of the lead roles, he offers. He has to drag his 12-year-old son to the movie theater, for example. “He’d rather do something else, whether it’s a sport or an internet game.”
Gallen doesn’t say this himself, but one of those alternative entertainment options is porn. For kids growing up in the 1980s or 1990s, the movie theater was their best chance to see exposed breasts and simulated sex acts outside of discovering their father’s Playboy collection, or lucking into a porno tape. They watched teen sex comedies (in part) to see the wind blowing against Rebecca De Mornay’s naked body, or ogle Ali Larter in a whip cream bikini, or watch Shannon Elizabeth masturbate topless.
But now kids can watch actual sex, on their phones, from the privacy of their bedrooms. “I don’t know what I would’ve done if I had the internet in high school and had this ponography at my fingertips. I wouldn’t have left my house,” says Johnson.
Social tastes also have changed drastically. Many teen sex comedies — with their straight bro gaze — would be considered wildly problematic by today’s standards.
American Pie director Paul Weitz says the film might seem as arcane to today’s audiences as a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland movie. That said, he intended American Pie to be sex-positive and feminist. “The women in the film are generally in positions of control,” Weitz says. “Jason Biggs, for instance, goes from spying on Shannon Elizabeth to being spied on as she makes him slap his own ass. In the end, he ends up being used by a fairly empowered band geek.
“It’s probably still taboo to acknowledge a woman’s right to not only decide whether and when to have sex, but also to have the right to take pleasure from it. But in American Pie, Natasha Lyonne encourages Tara Reid to get what she wants out of her physical relationship with her boyfriend, instead of simply giving him pleasure.”
Johnson’s upcoming film, Alex Strangelove, aims to capture our current cultural moment, where teens have a far more encompassing view of sex and gender. “The rules and traditional order has fallen away a little bit, and for me, that’s really ripe for comedy,” Johnson says. “It’s hard to date in high school, but it’s even harder when there are no rules.”
He plans to set his film in some cosmopolitan American city, where teenagers openly identify as genderqueer, bisexual, polyamorous and anything else outside the rigid heteronormativity depicted in most classic teen sex comedies. “I haven’t seen that big, modern, teen sex comedy that takes all these social changes into account,” Johnson says. “The irony is there’s a lot anxiety in the absence of those old boundaries. And that’s what all teen sex comedies are ultimately about: the anxiety of sex.”