Pundits say has got to be one of my least favorite phrases these days, and that's as true for the world of arts and entertainment as it is for politics. For awhile now, pundits in the show biz press have been pronouncing the "chick flick" dead or at least on life support, and the amount of disinformation they toss around is enough to make a romantic comedy lover (i.e. defender) get a little... testy.
New York Times writer Michael Cieply evidently needed a hook for his puff piece about two female-driven movies currently in production: P.J. Hogan's Confessions of a Shopaholic, starring Isla Fisher, and Nora Ephron's Julie & Julia, starring Amy Adams and Meryl Streep, so he titled his screed, "Wary Hollywood Plans More Chick Flicks (Hoping to Lure the Guys)."
The thesis Mr. Cieply puts forth here can be summed up as: Hollywood hasn't done well with chick flicks recently, but it's giving them a shot again with these two pics, hoping they'll somehow constitute a "next generation chick flick."
How wrong are the basic assumptions here? Let us count the ways. Firstly there is "Hollywood" -- spoken of as if it were a single entity, as opposed to an unwieldy, ever-morphing mass of contradictory impulses whose disparate constituents are often barely on speaking terms with one another. Hollywood is not wary; Jerry Bruckheimer, one of the producers of Shopaholic, is wary, and who can blame him? This movie doesn't have big car chases and things blowing up good in it, so he could lose a chunk of change.
Secondly, there's the idea that "chick flicks haven't been doing well." Here's the short list of under-performers Cieply refers to, after noting that The Nanny Diaries didn't do as well as Bridget Jones' Diary or The Devil Wears Prada:
A run of recent female-oriented romantic films — “The Holiday” with Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet; “Catch and Release” with Jennifer Garner; “27 Dresses” with Katherine Heigl; “Music & Lyrics” with Drew Barrymore; “P.S., I Love You” with Hilary Swank; and “The Jane Austen Book Club,” with an ensemble cast — has stopped far short of the peaks established years before by films like “Sleepless,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” “Runaway Bride” and “Notting Hill.”
A chick flick is a movie that women respond to, and a hit movie is a thing that people respond to, and the thing is: Nanny Diaries SUCKED. The half dozen movies cited are uniformly mediocre at best. Female audiences avoided them not because they were "chick flicks" but because they weren't very good. And their weaknesses stemmed largely from their sharing a relentlessly old-fashioned sensibility about what "a woman's picture" is supposed to be.
When I read a spec script that follows the hoary chick flick formula, i.e. a movie that's relentlessly focused on its heroine's quest for a Mr. Right, complete with say, a stereotypical female buddy, a scene that has the heroine use a hairbrush as a microphone and a tub of ice cream as consolation for romantic distress, plus a climax that features a race to the airport... do I run into a studio executive's office yelling "I've got a winner!!!"?
Like, not if I want to keep my job. But if I read a script that has a great part for a female star, that's emotionally involving, that's about something (i.e. some issue that feels contemporary and universal), that keeps me in suspense (dramatic or comedic) and surprises me... I'm far more likely to give it a Consider.
A script that hops onto my desk singing, "I'm a chick flick!" -- meaning, a story that subscribes to the most traditional, conservative and fundamentally unimaginative use of, and portrayal of, a female lead and concerns -- is exactly what the studio doesn't need. Ironically, studios are being somewhat cautious about green-lighting female-driven movies because they're finding out the hard way that the old formulas aren't working. It's not that they don't want to make movies for women, it's that (calling Dr. Freud) they really don't know what women want.
Meanwhile, recent studies of demographics have shown that a huge young female audience has flocked to such splatter fare as Hostel 2 (counter-intuitive but true: 50% of the audience for that gore-fest was apparently women under-25, see this post). 65% of the audience for video game The Sims is reportedly female. And what, pray tell, was the biggest hit among female audiences in 2007? A quirky, edgy, indie-sensibility-ed left-fielder about teenage pregnancy called Juno.
Cieply and co's pronouncement that "the next generation hasn't announced itself" has already been patently disproved. Diablo Cody's little movie is the next generation's chick flick -- because it speaks to the contemporary young female audience where it lives, in a language that this demographic understands. That's what makes a chick flick click.
Women -- and humans, period -- went to see Prada because it was a smart, entertaining movie; I didn't go because it was a "chick flick," but in spite of it having been marketed as such. Shopaholic and Julie will hit or tank based on their either being well-written, well-made movies that speak to a contemporary audience's concerns, or not (Shopaholic, for example, with its "addicted to shopping" humor, had better hope it's not released smack dab in the middle of major recession).
What do "chicks" like? Buffy the Vampire Slayer suggested one kind of paradigm; Juno points to another. When the studios (and screenwriters and directors and talent, et al) finally abandon aging preconception of what a chick flick is and think outside the pink-hearted box, they're liable to hit a responsive chord. Maybe if instead of making your mother's (or grandmother's) chick flick, you make a smart, edgy movie featuring a female protagonist that isn't merely about landing Mr. Right... more than just chicks will show up to see it.
Fix it, don't nix it.