May has become a big month for movies, one of the biggest of the year, and often starts with a picture the studios think could do in the $200-$300 Million range. I’d say this is the weakest May of the last decade. At least, in terms of quality.



NOT FOR YOU

When cinema was in its prime in the 1930’s and 40’s it was the province of women, or so I have read. Nowadays, studios are more likely to be chasing the 17-34 male demographic when it comes to tent poles. And yet this week we’ve seen Alice in Wonderland reach one billion dollars worldwide. That means that three of the six biggest worldwide grosses were fueled as much – if not mostly – by women (the two Cameron pictures, Titanic and Avatar) with Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest also drawing heavily on a female demographic.

Sex and the City The Movie came out in 2008 and grossed $153 Million domestically and $263 Million internationally. And now we’ve got the Twilight franchise, which is also earning big money. That’s not to say women aren’t powerhouses when it comes to box office, films like Ghost or Pretty Women or It’s Complicated grossed over $100 Million, but in terms of franchise film-making, it’s hard to compare the recent Batman films to Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.

Every film is a gamble unto itself, even sequels – though the studio system has been pretty good at not fucking that up too bad (even Mission: Impossible III performed well, just not up to expectations), but when it comes to summer’s biggest, dumbest and loudest, this has been a market the studios have figured out fairly well – all things. But ultimately it seems most studios would rather make a $10-$40 Million dollar romantic comedy and hope for the best than invest nine digits into a film with women as a target demo, but even the smaller offerings may no longer have much of a foothold. In 2007 Warner Brothers’s Jeff Robinov got in trouble when – after the fiscal failings of The Brave One and The Invasion - he was quoted as saying that Warner Brothers was no longer interested in making pictures with women in leading roles. Perhaps he would reverse course a couple months later when Sex and the City hit, as Warner Brothers is the home to the Sex and the City franchise. The problem with romantic comedies is that they are star-driven, and right now Meryl Streep and Katherine Hiegl have the best track record for these sorts of films. Amy Adams and Isla Fisher haven’t taken hold, Hilary Swank didn’t work, Cameron Diaz hasn’t shown a great flair post-Mary and Julia Roberts is past her prime (which is sad in the sense that people missed her in the excellent Duplicity).

There are a couple ways of reading this failure to have a consistent female audience, and one is that women are more discerning than men. There may be some truth to that as we’ve seen a number of heavily-marketed films do exceptionally well with dudes (like, say, the Transformers sequel, or most of the comic book movies of late) regardless of quality, where you never know when a woman’s picture is going to connect with an audience or not. In the talkbacks for my friends Jeremy “Mr. Beaks” Smith and Sarah’s reviews of Sex and the City 2, it was Smith’s statement that he liked the new Sex more than Iron Man was contested, and I found this statement most apt: “It’s not better than Iron Man - I don’t get the hate for Iron Man 2 either. It’s a comic book movie.” But as this opens the door to a debate on quality, I would argue that the fiscal divide between men’s films and femme-centric cinema has more to do with studios knowing who to market to – they know they can sell things to a certain male demographic. The successes of films like Pretty Woman or Ghost felt like flukes, the success of the first Iron Man was preordained. When you have a collapsed theatrical window due to video and piracy, you can’t necessarily count on word of mouth to get a film up and running. The safety of an opening weekend is easier to chase and deliver.

The problem is that films like Sex and Twilight show that women are receptive to a certain kind of movie and may like it regardless of quality just as much as men. In a comparison between Sex and Iron Man audiences, both groups get their protagonists in elaborate and expensive outfits. Critics are shredding the latest adventures of Carrie and Co. but their savaging will likely have little impact on the final gross. My pet theory is that the first one got something of a soft pass because critics were more like “oh, this isn’t for me” where this time there’s more a sense of duty to stop it. Unfortunately – for better or worse – the studio system doesn’t quite understand this audience, and would rather chase board game adaptations. But both these female film franchises were based on pre-existing phenomenons, which meant they had the awareness of board games and sequels, giving them the room to open big and play like a blockbuster. It’s the same model, but it took Summit to make the Twilight franchise.

I watched a couple episodes of Sex and the City when it aired (my boss at the time loved the show and if he wanted to watch a couple episodes on the clock, who was I?) and I felt like it was a show written by gay men to be played by drag queens, though like a lot of shows I understand it got better as it went. And just as I haven’t seen a Tyler Perry film, I get that this has a niche audience that loves it, and that it’s not for me, because (in these cases) the filmmakers aren’t really interested in these films as cinema in a way that’s going to get me interested in them. As such, I don’t get the point of hating on these films as any better or worse than – say – the Fantastic Four franchise. The problem with the internet is it gives people an excuse to think they should have an opinion on relatively harmless things. Is the female fantasies of Sex and the City better or worse or more damaging than that of Iron Man? I don’t know, but I do know that there are very few movies made today that are top-lined by four women. And there is an arguable value to that, even if it is that equality means equally vapid and juvenile movies for women.

D-U-M-B, EVERYONE’S PREDICTING ME!

It’s a Sex-driven weekend, with Prince of Persia in the rear, lapping at their tail. Persia seems undercooked, and no one likes it, but people may be bored enough with Iron Man 2 to want to see the next big spectacle. Shrek probably holds steadier than expected, though it will win more for being the kids film out right now.

And for the four day:

1. Sex and the City 2 - $62.3 Million
2. Prince of Persia – $47.9 Million
3. Shrek 4 – $45 Million
4. Iron Man 2 - $18.5 Million
5. Robin Hood - $12 Million

That’s a four day prediction, but I may come back on Sunday to write it up, because that’s when the story will be told. Then again, the mescaline might not have worn off yet.