NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- "Little Man," the new comedy by the Wayans brothers that was almost universally panned by critics, surprisingly finished in second place at the box office last week with $21.6 million in ticket sales.
And Ryan Okum thinks his company is partly responsible for the film's success. Okum, vice president of business development at StreetWise, a marketing agency that caters to teens and young adults, works with large media firms like Sony (Charts), which distributed "Little Man."
The company organizes groups of teens and young adults to promote films, music and video games through a variety of means. Some StreetWise members post messages on popular social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. Others get promotional "swag" and hit the pavement for some old-fashioned street marketing, putting up posters or handing out hats, T-shirts, DVDs and CDs.
StreetWise has 70,000 registered members, and Okum said the company's members actually vote on whether or not they want to work on a certain project. Okum said that 80 percent of the members must approve a deal or StreetWise will reject it. "Little Man" made the cut, and Okum said that his firm's promotion of the movie did help raise awareness of it.
"The movie had a great opening. It was a happy surprise for us that it beat Sony's expectations," Okum said. His firm is also working with Sony to promote "Monster House," the computer-animated film that came out on Friday, and "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," the Will Ferrell NASCAR comedy that will hit theaters in August.
"Little Man's" experience underscores just how important it is for mainstream media companies to reach out to teens and young adults. Of course, this demographic has always been coveted by Hollywood. But with the help of the Internet, media companies are aggressively stepping up their efforts to attract a younger crowd.
"What's happening with teens is that the distinction between their real lives and their online lives is blurring. Big companies are realizing that to reach teens you have to address that fact," said Michael Wilson, CEO of There, a web site that allows teens and young adults can create avatars to hang out in virtual worlds.
Wilson said he has been approached by mainstream media companies about having promotional tie-ins for movies and music on There, but that his firm has not made any formal deals with Hollywood just yet.
Many say that if a media company wants to get the attention of teens, advertising on television or other forms of media aren't nearly as effective as the Web.
"There is a sense of urgency about how to attract and market to teens since they are spending so much time online," said Rusty Williams, vice president with Prospero Technologies, a software firm that helps companies incorporate message boards, blogs, and chats on their Web sites. His firm works with News Corp.'s (Charts) Fox movie and TV business as well as with CBS (Charts).
Still, even though it may be easier to specifically target teens in the age of MySpace, some say that there are also new challenges on the Web. With more and more media companies trying to pitch their movies, music and games to teens online, there is a certain amount of clutter to break through.
"You are trying to reach a jaded audience and you need to do so in a more effective, innovative way. You have to be smart and clever and make your message speak to them while also being cool," said Tim Nett, the CEO of Trailer Park, an entertainment marketing company.
To that end, Nett said that his firm has developed a dating-quiz that it is running online as well as in movie theaters to promote Fox's upcoming teen movie "John Tucker Must Die."
Media companies also have to strike that delicate balance of trying to market something without making it seem like they are jamming it down teen's throats. Okum said that's why Hollywood is increasingly turning to more viral, guerilla type campaigns.
"Over the past two years, you've seen larger companies turning to more word of mouth and non-traditional marketing for teens and young adults. Most companies now have a line item for buzz marketing," he said.
So why is Hollywood going through so much effort to chase such a fickle market? Well, it's obvious. The reward for striking a chord with teens can be immense.
"Media companies are going after teens in every way you can imagine, since it is a market of impressionable minds," said Bill Abrams, an attorney focusing on entertainment and corporate law with the firm Abrams Garfinkel Margolis Bergson, LLP. "Look at Disney (Charts) and 'High School Musical.' The run they are getting out of that is just astounding."
Abrams is referring to the movie about - you guessed it - a high school musical, which first aired on the Disney Channel in January. The movie has become a phenomenon with tweens and teens, spawning a CD and DVD that are still among the top 25 sellers on Amazon.com (Charts). In addition, the movie ranks among the most popular videos available for download on Apple's (Charts) iTunes...and at $9.99 a pop to boot.