What you see on the screen, big or little, is only part of the story. Rachel Abramowitz’s new column, Hollywood Brief, gives the town’s culture, personalities and power players the close-up they deserve -- but may not always want.
ARE YOU ready for “Desperate Housewives, the Movie”? “Grey’s Anatomy: Bigger, Sappier” and filled with an array of new luscious boy toys (Brad Pitt as Dr. McCreamy)? How about “Sex and the City: Cougars Live” edition? Personally I’d see “America’s Next Top Model” the cinematic version, as long as Tyra brings her riding crop and commands the wannabe models to look fierce as they bungee jump off the Eiffel Tower in thongs and tiaras.
I’m being facetious, but I bet ya some genius out in Burbank is dreaming up ideas just like this. That’s because I and half of Hollywood is trying to parse the lessons of the resounding success (unexpected to some) of the “Sex and the City” movie, the event film for women.
A $57-million opening weekend? And $192 million worldwide within two weeks? Chicks en masse go to the film as a religious experience. Is there a stampede to knock off other hit TV shows, figuring that TV is to women what comic books are to men? A product with pre-established awareness and mythic potential? Or will “SATC’s” hitdom be chalked off as a periodic anomaly, just like “First Wives Club,” “Fatal Attraction” and, of course, the bestselling movie of all time, “Titanic,” whose tidal wave of gross profit was driven by human beings lacking the Y-chromosome.
For some, there’s cause for optimism.
“I hope [‘Sex and the City’] will at least bring about more of a trend toward films made specifically for adult female women,” says Donna Langley, Universal’s president of production, who ran out opening weekend to catch the film, both as a consumer and a professional. “You would hope, given the success of ‘Sex and the City,’ people will remember there is a huge female audience out there, and, judging by these numbers, they’re clearly starved, for the most part.”
Yet for others, the mere fact that pundits and businessmen are looking for lessons is irritating. “Why does the fate of female audiences rest on one movie?” asks producer Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, who produced the upcoming film “Kit Kittredge: An American Girl,” as well as such women-driven hits as “Maid in Manhattan.” “There are many movies made for male audiences that work and don’t work, but it doesn’t seem that the fate of gender-based movies rested on them.” Goldsmith-Thomas was Julia Roberts’ agent in the ‘90s, when she was knocking out box-office hits one after another. “Julia Roberts broke the standards, but rather than say, ‘There is a female audience,’ what people said was ‘It’s only because of Julia. It’s an exception.’ That’s the frustration.”
Even now, Alan Horn, the president and chief operating officer of Warner Bros. Entertainment,who released “SATC,” is loathe to stand up and declare like an evangelist, “I’ve seen the light.”
“It’s risky to draw lines or curves from a limited number of data points,” says Horn. “We always believe around here, as Mr. Shakespeare said, ‘The play’s the thing.’ ” Horn points out that “Sex and the City” was a film that hit a bull’s-eye into the zeitgeist, with its blend of relatable characters, incredible clothes and tons of brand awareness. Says Horn: “It seems pretty clear we ought to be talking about a sequel, though there’s no immediate conclusion we draw regarding the women’s audience. We at Warner Bros. do not wish to be set up as industry seers.”
To insiders it’s kind of ironic that Warner Bros. ended up with the biggest women’s hit of the year. When the HBO-bred project went on the market inside the Time Warner empire, Big Warner wasn’t the division holding its hand up and yelping, “Here, here, here!” That was its scrappier brother, New Line, which has always had a more renegade elan. Yet the independent label was folded into Big Warner back in February, giving the major studio Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte to market, which they’ve done effectively.
Then there was October’s kerfuffle, when bloggers began circulating the rumor that Horn’s protege, President of the Warner Bros. Pictures Group Jeff Robinov had declared a ban on female leads after the commercial fizzles of the would-be thrill fests “The Reaping,” “The Invasion” and “The Brave One,” which starred three Oscar winners, Hilary Swank, Nicole Kidman and Jodie Foster, respectively. It was one of the apocryphal stories that certainly seemed like it could be true, because many female industry players suspect that’s what a chunk of male studio execs secretly think anyway.
Horn says Robinov never said it, though someone -- whom he declined to name -- in the Warner empire did and that it was a dumb comment and not true. Particularly not true because Horn has two daughters, and his finger is on the greenlight button. “Warner Bros. is not the first name that has sprung to mind for movies aimed at the female audience, but the truth is, if you look at our record, there’s really a lot of movies that our company has attempted to resonate with the female audience.”
He reels off much of the Sandra Bullock oeuvre, then “No Reservations,” “Music and Lyrics,” “Million Dollar Baby” and “North Country.” “I love that movie,” says Horn, referring to “North Country,” the Charlize Theron drama based on a landmark sexual harassment case. “It did not perform well commercially. Does that say anything about a movie starring women? No, it doesn’t. Sometimes there’s a difference between quality and commerciality or marketability.”
Warner Bros.’ track record with women seems about par with the rest of Hollywood, though its films tend to be more mid-brow, more targeted to Indiana than the blogging, hipper worlds of L.A. and New York City.
Part of Hollywood’s problem is the studios have a hard time figuring out what women want, which is a little more complicated than exploding tanks and putting middle-aged guys in souped-up superhero costumes.
“We want to see ourselves on screen the way we actually are, not some bad Xerox versions of ourselves,” says writer-director Diane English, the “Murphy Brown” creator who’s just made “The Women,” another movie featuring a bevy of 40-plus women, among them Meg Ryan and Annette Bening. “We care about our feelings. We’re wired that way. I think for a movie to connect, it has to be well done. . . . Going to the movies is a commitment of time and effort. I think women rely on word of mouth.”
“It’s about pinpointing the emotional experience,” suggests producer Denise Di Novi, who made 1994’s “Little Women” and the upcoming romance “Nights in Rodanthe,” with Richard Gere and Diane Lane. “It’s a complicated balance between real emotion and wish fulfillment. That’s the balance [“SATC”]got right.” In other words, they served up a 42-year-old woman getting jilted at the altar by her boyfriend, and wearing designer duds and a sky-high black hat to shop at Rite Aid.
“We want to make more female-driven movies, but they’re hard to come by. Films like ‘Sex and the City’ don’t come along every day. It’s not like we have 20 of them on our development slate,” adds Universal’s Langley, who’s actually trying to walk the walk, having made the spring hit “Baby Mama” and the summer film “Mamma Mia!,” the Meryl Streep musical, which seems most able to repeat “SATC’s” success, at least in the global marketplace, given the popularity of the stage show and of ABBA. They also made such Judd Apatow films as “Knocked Up” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” whose protagonists might be oafy guys but whose audiences, according to Universal, were 57% female.
“I hope the film’s success encourages not only studios to make more films for women but more female writers and directors to step forward with their own unique voices,” says Langley.
Watching Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton give up her presidential dream this last weekend made me think of the “Sex and the City” gals. OK, it’s hard to imagine Clinton knocking back cosmos and discussing her sexual fantasies with Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte. But for the first time in months, I was actually touched by Clinton’s invocation of all the women who had come out to support her, the fact that her groundbreaking run would make other presidential runs by female candidates unremarkable. She trumpeted the same female solidarity theme as “SATC” and presented a beguiling message of authenticity and aspiration. That’s a potent cocktail for the female voter and moviegoer.
There are about 116 million women over the age of 18 in America. Let’s hope that Hollywood, and Washington, never forget that.