Back in the day, the studios had a name for the kind of movie they knew would appeal to a female audience. They called it "a women's picture." Today, the studios have a different name for a movie they know will appeal to a female audience. They call it... "huh?" Or "You tell me."
The industry's lack of a better response is somewhat puzzling. Indie producer Lindsay Doran, quoted in this recent NY Times article by Sharon Waxman entitled Hollywood's Shortage of Female Power, notes:
You don’t see companies saying, ‘More than half of this population is women, we should design a slate to come up with movies like ‘The Break-Up,’ and ‘The Devil Wears Prada.’ ”
Part of the problem, the article theorizes, is chick flick fare having been in a dull lull:
Despite the success of “The Break-Up,” for example, romantic comedies have been in decline for a number of years, since their heyday a decade ago with stars like Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan and Sandra Bullock. (This past winter, “Catch and Release,” “Because I Said So” and “Holiday” struggled, while “Music and Lyrics,” with Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore, did only decent business.)
Waxman goes on to cite a certain gap in the female star firmament...
Not only have few women emerged to replace those A-list stars, but studios are also reluctant to pay the price tags of $20 million or so that those women once commanded.
...and she explores in some depth an issue that may or may not be a factor in creating what producer Lynda Obst (Sleepless in Seattle) calls "a boys' era" in contemporary Hollywood, namely a recent changing in the gender guard re: the seats of studio power. Nina Jacobson no longer runs Disney, Gail Berman's out of Paramount, and Stacey Snider ankled Universal to head Dreamworks, a Paramount subsidiary. But Waxman is (wisely) quick to note:
It is debatable whether the diminished number of women running major studios has had any effect on the kinds of movies being made. Studio executives, both men and women, have shown themselves to be pragmatists above all, choosing movies that they believe will make the most money for their corporate parents.
One of the more interesting aspects of this puzzle, at least to me, is the notion that today's female audience is actually enjoying a different kind of movie, one that was traditionally thought of as the under-25 male's province.
While “Hostel 2” would seem to be classic male-oriented shriekfest, the reality is that women are avid fans of horror films. Fifty percent of the “Hostel” audience was female, [Lionsgate president Tom Ortenberg] said.
“Female markets have been underserved, and the over-25 female audience is one that’s dramatically underserved in the marketplace,” he said. “I don’t know why that is."
The article is provocative reading, albeit inconclusive. I myself have no catch-all Reason Why there's a female audience hungry for movies that say "hello" to them -- and nothing on the studio menus to satisfy their desires. But I'll hazard a couple of additional educated guesses.
It's the scripts, stupid. As a studio story analyst, I read bad romantic comedies on a weekly basis. By "bad" I'm referring to a multitude of sins, from poor craft in execution to story concepts that are derivative, formulaic shlock. Lately there've been a plethora of idea-challenged entries in the rom-com sub-genre, the Wedding Romantic Comedy, and let me just say this about that: if I have to read one more spec titled Always a Bridesmaid, you'll be hearing my scream even if you hail from Alaska.
The thing about Prada was, in addition to having some pre-sale buzz due to the popularity of the source material, and some very good casting, someone wroted it good. It was capital-s Smart; it offered up savvy star parts via canny characterization work and had the kind of witty, snappy dialogue one doesn't hear in a lookout, it's gonna blow!!! movie. Any wonder that women (and a sizable number of intelligent men) responded?
Prada is not a romantic comedy but it's female protagonist-driven and consciously aimed at a thinking female audience. Which leads me to posit that to be hailed as "reborn" right now, all the rom-com genre needs is one movie smart enough in concept and execution to strike a box office chord with womanhood, and I persist that the route to this is originality. This most excellent inventory of some recent imaginative romantic comedies shows that it can be done, and I only wish that instead of trotting out SOS (Same Old Shit) specs, today's aspiring rom-com and "women's picture" writers would go WOW (Write Outside What's-Been-Done). And while we're on the subject of using one's head...
If 40 is the new 30... Why not start making movies for grown-ups? The real giant-sized audience that's currently being squandered through ignore-ance by Hollywood isn't just women, it's adults over 25, and beyond them, the Boomers. Lively Greyheads. Geezers-who-Geeze-Not.
We're all still here, and as Prada (and say, The Queen and a few other successful anomalies) have demonstrated, thinking over-40 year-olds will brave the multiplexes, given something of substance to chew on.
The current studio formula for such "adult" fare is actually fairly shrewd: put a young 'un with an elder. It didn't work for Cameron Diaz and Shirley MacLaine's In Her Shoes (inexplicably, I thought, since it was a pretty good picture), but Universal's upcoming Georgia Rule, pairing Lindsay Lohan with Jane Fonda, has a shot.
I'll have more on this one when the movie's out, having briefly done one quick round of notes on the project, early on. But I'll say this much: the movie deals with substantive subject matter and has some intelligently realized characters and emotionally affecting moments -- again, the winning combo is a savvy screenwriter (Mark Andrus, As Good As It Gets) and top-drawer casting (Felicity Huffman fans will be pleased as well).
In the meantime, I'm intrigued to hear from my female readership. What are you looking for in a movie nowadays? Where do you (or do you ever) find it? What kind of movie do you think the studios should put out, to bring you and your gender into the theaters? Living RomCom wants to know.