Box-Office Theory Sinks With 'Titanic'

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It is the opening day of "Mulan" in a theater in Santa Monica. Mulan, the Chinese girl, has dressed as a man to take her father's place in the Imperial Army. After first failing basic training, she has come back and outperformed the men. As the sequence comes to its climax, a kid's voice in the row behind me says, "Coooool."

Which, of course, will ultimately help you understand why Hollywood was so irritated when "Deep Impact" grossed $41.2 million its first weekend a month before.

Some of the reasons for the irritation were obvious, but at least one was not, and it suggests the degree to which Hollywood, and those who write about it, are in deep denial about what may be one of the most significant changes taking place in the industry in 20 years.

First, the obvious reasons. Sony was irritated because if "Deep Impact" turned out to be the hit its opening suggested, it could affect Sony's summer biggie, "Godzilla," which opened a week and a half after "Impact." Disney was irritated because if "Impact" was a hit then it might cut into Disney's Touchstone comet-hits-the-Earth picture, "Armageddon." Plus, the industry as a whole had pretty much decided, based on the tracking polls done before "Deep Impact's" release, that the opening weekend's gross would be about $30 million, and it is always irritating when their "scientific" surveys go wrong.

To understand the less obvious reason, it is necessary to discuss--if you can stand to spend another five minutes reading about it--"Titanic." Leonard Klady, doing a summing-up of the winter box-office season in Weekly Variety (April 13-19), lists the reasons the industry had thought that it might not be a blockbuster: "Though anticipated as a top holiday grosser, its running time, period setting and lack of big stars had prognosticators citing a $200-million ceiling prior to opening."

What was he failing to mention? If you had your windows open that day last December when James Cameron said he had made a "$200-million chick flick," you could have heard Hollywood cringing. "Chick flicks" are not supposed to be blockbusters, and Hollywood was afraid Cameron was dooming his own film.

That idea--that films with large female audiences cannot make that much money--has affected how the film was written about. Amy Wallace, writing about the film's audiences in The Times (Feb. 10), says the film is "a chick flick with muscle," and then adds, in a curious piece of phrasing, that exit polls show "that 40% of viewers are male." Which means that, with the exception of the odd trans-gendered viewer, approximately 60% of the audience is female. If the exit polling were done later in the film's run, the percentage would probably have been higher. Which means that the highest-grossing film of all time was put at the top of the list by female filmgoers.

This is not supposed to happen. For 20 years, since the first "Star Wars" film, the basic industry assumption has been that to be a blockbuster hit, a film has to appeal predominantly to young males age 12 to 25. This was true of the "Star Wars" films, the "Indiana Jones" films, "Independence Day," "Men in Black" and many others. It is what the makers of "Godzilla" and "Armageddon" have been counting on, but it may no longer be true. Young men are apparently spending more time at video games, computers and Internet porn, and less time at the movies. One of the most recent demonstrations of this was "Can't Hardly Wait," a boys-and-girls teen comedy starring Jennifer Love Hewitt, grossing $8 million its opening weekend, while the opening the same weekend of "Dirty Work," a crude boy's pranks comedy, earned only $3.6 million, at 10% fewer theaters.

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Hollywood has, over the last 10 years, completely unconsciously and unintentionally, created a new audience, or rather regained an old audience. In the 1930s and '40s, the heads of the studios made films for everybody, including women. Beginning with "Driving Miss Daisy" in 1989, which brought in nearly $100 million in domestic film rentals (the money paid from the theaters to the distributors; the following figures on film grosses are from Weekly Variety, which shifted from reporting rentals to box-office figures about 1993), many films have attracted larger-than-expected audiences among women.

My Dec. 18, 1995, Counterpunch essay in The Times pointed out that Hollywood and the people writing about it should no longer be surprised at the large opening grosses of films by and about women. A week after that essay appeared, "Waiting to Exhale" opened to industry "surprise" at its grosses. So much for my influence on Hollywood thinking.

Most of these so-called "women's" films had been turned down, or at least resisted, at the proposed project level by studio executives. Every studio in town turned down "Driving Miss Daisy" before it was financed independently, and it took producer Amy Pascal 12 years of trying to get "Little Women" made.

When films like those were successful, they were assumed by the studios to be, in William Goldman's wonderful phrase, "nonrecurring phenomena." The phenomena have been regularly recurring: "Ghost" (1990), "Pretty Woman" (1990), "Fried Green Tomatoes" (1991), "The Bodyguard" (1993), "While You Were Sleeping" (1995) and "First Wives Club" (1996).

Another reason studios looked down on "chick flicks" was the assumption that male action pictures, with minimal dialogue, would play better in the overseas market. Not necessarily true. "Indecent Proposal" made $106 million at the U.S. box office, but $150 million internationally. "Sense and Sensibility" made $42 million in the U.S. and $90 million internationally. (And though both were British films, "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "The Full Monty" were pushed to high grosses by female audiences.) "Titanic," which has doubled its American gross internationally, is simply the culmination of the trend.

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About the only reviewer who sensed the connection "Deep Impact" had to all of this was, appropriately enough, a woman. Lisa Schwarzbaum, writing in Entertainment Weekly, said, "It's . . . the womanly action-thriller, a new breed of summertime entertainment, in which scenes of speed, suspense, frantic keyboard punching and computer-generated destruction serve as testosterone infusions between the nurturing of relationships!" The action elements of the film were used in the conventional promotion for the film (the only trailer I saw for the film that emphasized the relationships appeared only a week before the film opened), which was what Hollywood assumed would create the $30-million opening.

This attitude continued after the film opened, as in this quote from an anonymous Paramount executive (presumably a man) that appeared the following week (May 22) in Entertainment Weekly: "You really want to know what opened the movie? The wave [that wipes out New York City]. We put it in the trailer and all the TV spots. That's the only reason it opened. We all know it." (See what I mean about irritated?) The person is assuming that the wave shot was like the exploding White House shot in the "Independence Day" trailers, but the former does not have the resonance of the latter (except perhaps for confirmed New York haters).

What does have resonance for moviegoers in "Deep Impact" are the relationships, and my guess is that this was only apparent when the film was finally seen by paying audiences, just as the way audiences focused on the relationships in "Titanic" only became clear when the film was released. This is why "Deep Impact" has continued to gross better than expected (Entertainment Weekly eventually called it "The Little Event Movie That Could"--only in Hollywood would an $80-million movie be called "little").

Part of the reason that "Titanic" and "Deep Impact" have worked, and worked for female audiences, is that both films take their relationships seriously. David Denby, film critic for New York magazine, wrote an essay that appeared in the New Yorker (April 6) in which he took American movies to task for not giving their audiences emotion. He complained that "even to speak of movie emotion in such terms is now extremely awkward. In so many Hollywood movies nothing much is at stake."

He also criticized the way cynical irony had taken over not only the films but the marketing of the films: "Big movies are now spoofs without a target; they draw on a generalized facetiousness. Corporate irony, which ridicules the very thing that it is selling--and ridicules the act of selling, too--is the deadliest weapon ever leveled against artistic seriousness (including comic seriousness)."

One can see what he is talking about in regard to corporate irony in the quote from the Paramount executive, but it is not surprising that Denby does not mention "Titanic" at all in his essay, because it would invalidate much of what he says, which was true of American films a year ago. The seriousness with which a lot of its audience took "Titanic" changed the game, and "Deep Impact" is the beneficiary of that change.

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The director of "Deep Impact" was a woman, Mimi Leder. (Full disclosure time: Leder was a student of mine in the Radio-Television-Cinema Department at Los Angeles City College in the early '70s. While I would like to claim we taught her everything she knows, we didn't. The talent, film sense and drive are all hers.) What Leder brings to "Deep Impact" is the seriousness about character that distinguishes her extraordinary Emmy-winning work on "China Beach" and "ER."

In her first theatrical film, "The Peacemaker," the same seriousness was there. Some reviewers of that film complained, after years of criticizing American action films for being "comic book" movies, that the film was not comic book enough, a complaint some have had about "Impact" as well. Leder brings the same concern with character that is the hallmark of the best of American series television into the world of big-budget American films at just the time when there is the maturation of the audience for American films.

While there were a lot of adult women at "Titanic," using the term "maturation of the audience" may seem odd, since there is an industry awareness of the teenage girl market, which certainly helped the grosses of both "Titanic" and everything starring either Jennifer Love Hewitt or Neve Campbell. The teen female audience is, however, only part of the new women's audience, but it is not surprising that it has developed in the last 10 years, during the time the women's audience has developed. The teens of today have grown up with the post-feminist attitude that there are and should be movies for them, and it is an attitude that their younger siblings have as well--hence the "Coooool" at "Mulan."

Does this mean the end of the simple-minded, testosterone-driven blockbuster? Probably not. But it does mean that Hollywood needs to stop denying that there is a massive audience of women who will turn out for more than the conventional films.

And guys, too, for that matter. You and I have both assumed that the kid who said, "Coooool," was a girl. I didn't turn around to look but it may well have been a post-feminist boy.

And keep in mind as well that the highest approval ratings for "Little Women" were from men, ages 50 and older.

Tom Stempel is a professor of cinema at Los Angeles City College. The third edition of his book "FrameWork: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film" will be published next year by Syracuse University Press.

The seriousness with which a lot of its audience took "Titanic" changed the game, and "Deep Impact" is the beneficiary of that change.

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