Hollywood's a notoriously cutthroat place, but the all-girl ensemble film "Bridesmaids" has cast a mysterious, uniting spell over women in show biz who might otherwise see one another as rivals.
Weeks before the movie's May opening, female screenwriters, producers and actresses who had no connection with the R-rated Kristen Wiig film began beating the drums for it. Actress and writer Mindy Kaling ("The Office") asked her male fans on Twitter to take their girlfriends. Screenwriter Ellen Rapoport emailed her buddies, urging them to get out to the movie's debut. Writer-producer Kirsten Smith invited friends to a showing at the ArcLight Cinema in Hollywood — and even wore a bridesmaid dress.
"I took it too far," laughed Smith, best known for writing such female-driven material as "Legally Blonde" and "The House Bunny." "But it felt like something was afoot. It seemed like a political action. We needed the movie to succeed."
"Bridesmaids," which has grossed nearly $140 million for Universal since its debut, isn't the only R-rated comedy that women in Hollywood are rooting for this season: Next up are the Cameron Diaz starrer "Bad Teacher," opening Friday, and September's "What's Your Number?," starring Anna Faris. Female filmmakers are hoping that these movies, which center on flawed but empowered women behaving badly, will reverse a decade-old trend of reducing comedic roles for women to either the Type-A power suits too busy for love or girlfriends/wives determined to squash the boys' fun.
A key hurdle, though, to getting more female-driven comedies made is bringing the boys into theaters. While women often comprise at least 40% of the audience for male-driven comedies such as "The Hangover Part II," romantic comedies usually draw an opening weekend audience that is 80% female, according to Adam Fogelson, chairman of Universal. The rather raunchy "Bridesmaids," though, drew a more balanced crowd, beginning with a 65%-35% female-male split. And, he said, the audience "certainly didn't get more female over time. It got older over time."
Previous attempts over the last decade at imbuing raunchiness into comedies starring women have fizzled. The 2002 film "The Sweetest Thing," which also starred Diaz, made just $24 million, while "Spring Breakdown," with the Amy Poehler and Rachel Dratch, was never released theatrically by its studio, Warner Bros.
"As an actress who's been pitching a few different R-rated comedies around town, there's always a lot of resistance, because the thought is that women don't want to see other women being raunchy," said Faris, whose "What's Your Number?" centers on a thirtysomething woman who's slept with a lot of guys and is reluctant to add another to her list even though she desperately wants to find love.
"It's baffling to me. Now, we've got a little armor with 'Bridesmaids.' It's amazing for us as women, and as people in comedy, we'll be able to use this as a great example of why there is an audience — a huge audience. People want to see women doing interesting things."
"Bad Teacher" and "What's Your Number?" have commonalities with "Bridesmaids" beyond the R rating that may bode well for their chances at the box office. All were based on scripts that quickly caught fire and didn't go through lengthy rewrites with additional writers. They are all modestly budgeted, especially compared to an $80-million comedy such as "The Hangover Part II": "Bridesmaids" cost the most at $32.5 million; Sony's "Bad Teacher" was the cheapest at $19 million (Diaz took a giant cut from her typical fee). And they all either came with their lead actress attached or hired quickly.
"You want the film to be at a price where you can be as outrageous as possible," said Amy Pascal, co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, who priced "Bad Teacher" at the same level as a number of other R-rated movies for the studio, including "Superbad" and "Zombieland." "It doesn't need to appeal to everybody, but it will."
Hutch Parker, chairman of New Regency, which is behind "What's Your Number?," immediately sparked to the screenplay by Jen Crittenden and Gabrielle Allan (the script is based on the book "20 Times a Lady" by Karyn Bosnak). But he says it's one of only a handful over the last five years in this genre that have intrigued him.
"People are not writing this type of material in general," he said. "It may be because the cultural engineering of the town has long believed that there isn't a market for this kind of strong, liberated, but real female character."
Producer Jennifer Todd has been developing two projects in this arena for years. One, from writer-director Maggie Carey, will begin shooting this summer with "Parks and Recreation" star Aubrey Plaza, and is being financed entirely with independent money. It centers on a high-school graduate determined to acquire sexual experience before going to college.
"It was too edgy for the studios," said Todd, who originally tried selling the script (which made it onto the 2009 Black List, a compendium of Hollywood's hottest unproduced screenplays), to the studios. "People have likened it to a female 'Superbad.' It's definitely from a girl's perspective. But until we do it and succeed at it, it's a question mark of how far we can push it."
"Bridesmaids" does seem to be giving writers more courage to push the boundaries, specifically when it comes to big comedic set pieces and raunchy talk that was previously reserved for the boys. Parker has already seen a slew of copycats since "Bridesmaids" opened. And yet there's also fear of a bit of a backlash — that every script for a female comedy that lands on a development exec's desk will feature over-the-top scatological humor and gross-out gags.
"Whenever a phenomenon happens, there is a lot of conversation about the new trend and how people will chase the new trend and make it a new thing," said Fogelson. "It does a disservice to 'Bridesmaids,' … to suggest that it's easy to replicate what was created."
Indeed, even Universal hasn't rushed to greenlight another R-rated female-driven comedy. Todd's "Desperados," with Isla Fisher attached as a thirtysomething on a quest to Mexico to retrieve a scathing email from the computer of a man she's dating, is in development at the studio. But Universal is still tweaking the script, from Rapoport, before it says go.
"Had it failed in some way, it would have given us a harder climb," Todd said of "Bridesmaids." "Anytime a movie in any kind of space fails, everyone runs."
Women pushing for comedies say it's frustrating that studios will keep making expensive comic-book movies and other tentpoles even when some fail, yet seem profoundly averse to taking risks with their relatively modestly budgeted projects.
"This little genre — the low-budget studio comedy featuring women — is vulnerable and it only takes a couple of misfires to take the rug out from under us," said Smith, who is developing an R-rated buddy comedy with Faris at Paramount and is about to shop another comedy with writer-actress Krysten Ritter, star of the new fall ABC series "Apartment 23." She's hopeful the market is more accommodating than it was before "Bridesmaids."
"Bridesmaids" director Paul Feig said that he and Wiig (who co-wrote the script with Annie Mumolo) never set out to carry the torch for women's potential in comedic films. Yet he realized a lot was riding on the project.
"The whole time we were getting ready to do this movie, I had a lot of angst: If I screw this up, Hollywood is just waiting for an excuse to say, 'See, you can't do a movie with this many women in it,'" says Feig. "I'm just relieved we made money."