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Women Shed Light on Movies

August 8, 2008

By Susan Wloszczyna and Maria Puente

What do women want?

Freud never did find out. But at least Hollywood discovered a few clues this summer about what women want at the movies.

Two much-touted releases that focus on women’s relationships and personal desires didn’t merely succeed at a time when multiplexes practically sweat testosterone. The fashionista romance Sex and the City and the giddy musical Mamma Mia! went head-to-head with those big guns Indiana Jones and Batman, and not only survived but thrived with a substantial return on their reasonable budgets.

Sex collected $151.5 million and Mamma is so far at $91.8 million — nowhere near The Dark Knight’s stratospheric $400 million-plus. But their achievements are noteworthy nevertheless.

“Their success has been exciting to watch,” says filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood, whose women-dominated The Secret Life of Bees opens Oct. 17. “I was there opening weekend for Sex and the City with a group of friends in a packed theater. It’s great to remind Hollywood that not everything has to be Iron Man and Batman.”

Other female-driven vehicles have held their own during the blockbuster months (notably 2006′s The Devil Wears Prada, which grossed $124.7 million). The difference? Both Sex and Mamma are headlined by a supposedly unmarketable demographic: actresses over 40. Plus, the great majority of ticket buyers contributing to their box-office take are women 25 and older.

There’s a chance it all might be a fluke. Much like comic-book adventures, both films landed on screens with a built-in avid following. Then again, Sex and the City had to live up to its six steamy seasons on HBO, and Mamma Mia! needed to match the ABBA-infused excitement of the still-going-strong stage show.

“What it says to me is, ‘If you have the goods, they will come,’” says Donna Langley, head of production at Universal Pictures, the studio behind the musical. “They are well-known titles that became events. If you satisfy the commercial potential of the brands, the audience is there in droves.”

For these two pictures, having female talent calling at least some of the shots made all the difference.

While series creator Michael Patrick King wrote and directed Sex, star and producer Sarah Jessica Parker acted like a vigilant fairy godmother throughout the process, assuring that the heart of the series kept on beating in the movie.

Similarly, the Mamma Mia! team behind the stage phenom — director Phyllida Lloyd, producer Judy Craymer and writer Catherine Johnson — insisted that any studio that wanted to do the big-screen version had to hire them, too.

“It absolutely matters who’s behind the scenes,” says Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. “When you have at least one woman in a position of power, such as an executive producer or director, you not only get more female characters, but more dimensional and powerful female characters.”

Stellan Skarsgard, who plays one of Streep’s ex-lovers, found a definite difference when the opposite sex is in charge.

“The energy on set becomes nicer, more civilized.” In other words, he says, “there are no little boys who have to compare sizes.”

Looking at the industry numbers — only 15% of the directors, writers, producers, editors and other crew positions were filled by women in the top-grossing 250 films last year — it’s clear there is a ways to go before the gender picture is rosier. And Sex and Mamma’s triumphs might not translate into more opportunities for similar films. As Lauzen says, “It is really easy to be misled by a few high-profile cases.”

But there were signs early in the year of some gains being made. Four out of the 10 Oscar-nominated writers in the two screenplay categories were solo women, a record, with ex-stripper-turned-wordsmith Diablo Cody winning for her original story, Juno.

Another landmark: More young women were in attendance at last month’s bastion of male geekdom known as Comic-Con than there have been in all 38 years of the gathering’s existence.

The convention, which showcases upcoming movies, previewed Twilight, a vampire romance based on the young-teen literary sensation. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen), co-produced by Karen Rosenfelt (The Devil Wears Prada) and written by Melissa Rosenberg (TV’s Dexter), the December release looks to be another female-centric box-office winner. That is, if the sonic female shrieks that greeted a Twilight film clip can be trusted.

There is also a diverse array of movies in various stages of production, made by and starring women. The popularity of Mamma Mia! will open the door wider for a planned film version of Wicked, the Broadway hit that is backed by Universal. A Sex and the City sequel seems likely, and Parker is busy lining up other new projects, including The Ivy Chronicles — which is basically Single Mom and the City.

Drew Barrymore, who has produced and starred in numerous girl-power attractions such as Never Been Kissed and Charlie’s Angels, is making her directing debut with the roller-derby comedy Whip It!, starring Ellen Page of Juno.

If Sex and the City and Mamma Mia! have proved anything, it’s that it makes no difference to the bottom line if most men decide to steer clear. Women did it all by themselves.

And if female moviegoers want more of the same, they will have to continue to take a break from their busy routines and buy a ticket again.

“Go see a movie about women on the opening weekend, that is what matters to Hollywood,” says Melissa Silverstein, who blogs on the Women & Hollywood site and contributes to the Huffington Post. “We need to build our economic power and prove we’re a market.”

Cash, at least, doesn’t have a gender bias.

“The only thing that makes anyone pay attention is money,” says Diane English, the creator of TV’s Murphy Brown whose update of the 1939 Joan Crawford-Norma Shear classic The Women arrives Sept. 12.

“Anyone who thinks otherwise shouldn’t be in this business. Young men under 25 keep seeing comic-book and slasher films, and that’s why Hollywood makes them. If women want to change things, they can’t wait for the DVD.”

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