Cinema: The Class Of '98

First they took over your TV. Now they're clogging the 'plexes! It's the Invasion of the Teen Stars, and Hollywood moguls couldn't be happier

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Katie Holmes flashes her luminous, kitten-on-a-pillow smile and says, "It's a wonderful thing to be 19 and in show business right now." Ain't it, though? Last year she and her mom made a video screen test in the rec room of their Toledo, Ohio, home and sent it to Kevin Williamson, the Scream screenwriter, who needed an ingenue for his new TV series, Dawson's Creek. "I thought it would be just a sweet attempt," he says, "but Katie was amazing. At first she couldn't come meet us because she was in a high school play. Finally she walked in, and she was exactly what I had envisioned for the role."

So you don't have to be Drew Barrymore to become a movie Cinderella. With her Dawson's role as the dewy but sensible Joey and her film debut in the thriller Disturbing Behavior, Holmes could be the hottest multimedia teen since--hey, remember Neve Campbell?

These are indeed the wonder years for young actors with a marketable cuteness, an elfin eroticism, a certain Leo-like or next-Brad charisma. There are dozens of TV shows, like Dawson and Campbell's Party of Five, to employ them--and, it seems, quillions of low-budget movies to exploit their radiance and here-today star quality. Next week brings Halloween: H20, featuring Dawson's regular Michelle Williams. Then the college comedy Dead Man on Campus, with Alyson Hannigan of TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The teenpix parade marches into the fall by the dozens, including Varsity Blues (with Dawson's James Van Der Beek) and I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (Party of Five's Jennifer Love Hewitt).

If you're middle-aged and childless, these titles, these "stars," may mean nothing to you. And if you go to teen movies, you may wonder why anyone else would. Disturbing Behavior, directed by The X-Files' David Nutter, has a Stepford-teens premise with slacker appeal (all the well-behaved kids with good grades have been lobotomized on the say-so of their evil parents), and Holmes looks terrif as a Draculette punkster (nose ring, bicep tattoo, a swath of bare midriff). But the film goes haywire with torture scenes reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange. Which makes this a clockwork lemon. Halloween: H20, directed by Dawson's Creek's Steve Miner from a story idea by Williamson, sends Jamie Lee Curtis once more against her masked nemesis, in a retread of John Carpenter's 1978 classic. You loved the original; why not just rent or remember it?

Well, frankly, you don't matter. To Hollywood, kids matter. They are the most avid movie patrons--nearly half go twice a month or more, double the rate for 25-to-34-year-olds--and there are more of them than ever before. "The teenage population is growing faster than any other segment," says Paramount executive Rob Friedman, "and their tastes are more sophisticated than they used to be." They go for hip variations on old themes, flocking to the two Scream films (each earned more than $100 million at the domestic box office) or to a canny thriller like last year's I Know What You Did Last Summer, starring Hewitt and Buffy's Sarah Michelle Gellar (which grossed $72 million on a $17 million budget).

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