There is much to learn from the box-office performance of Sex and the City this weekend and the fact that its $56 million three-day opening wildly exceeded industry expectations. This is a movie about four women over 40, one of whom actually turns 50 before the story ends. The last movie about women in an age bracket most Hollywood executives would prefer to ignore that enjoyed any significant attention at all was The First Wives Club back in 1996, and while Wives was a success, it was not in league with Sex as a cultural phenomenon.
It has been reported that a sequel to Sex is under consideration, if not already in the works. That's great news for the movie business, but what does it say about television? It should not be forgotten that, like The X-Files: Fight the Future in 1998, Sex is more an episode of a beloved television series greatly expanded for presentation on a much larger screen and served up as a group viewing experience than an original feature film. Female television viewers by the thousands poured into movie theaters last Friday night to be reunited with Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha, just fans of the science-fiction series The X-Files flocked in droves to multiplexes to spend extra time with FBI Special Agents Mulder and Scully. (One huge difference: The X-Files movie debuted while its foundation series was still on the air.)
With all due respect to the movie business and its mighty marketing machines, which can power even the foulest swill into box-office gold over one weekend, the success of Sex (and The X-Files before it) has everything to do with the power of television, in first run and rerun, on broadcast and cable, on demand and on DVD. (All apply to Sex and its afterlife.) Its six-season run on HBO (fueled by the outstanding publicity and promotion for which the pay-cable giant is known) was as responsible for how well Sex performed this weekend as anything else.
So what should HBO -- which apparently had little to do with the movie itself beyond bringing some of the players together at the start -- take away from this (beyond trying to convince David Chase that a theatrical continuation of The Sopranos in some form might not be a bad idea)? Given the well-documented challenges it has faced in finding bold new series to fill the void that opened up when The Sopranos, Sex and the City and Six Feet Under closed down, maybe it would be worth making something old new again, rather than starting entirely from scratch.
I wonder: Would a new version of Sex and the City that focused on four twenty-something women navigating the New York City of this new millennium find an audience of its own? It might, if it were carefully crafted as a continuation of the concept rather than a spin-off of the original, which would invite too many immediate comparisons and likely kill it out of the gate.
The stories of those young women and the New York City in which would they seek love and personal fulfillment would be very different from the experiences of Carrie Bradshaw and her friends in their younger years. Back in the Eighties, young people could still come to Manhattan, find affordable housing, dabble in different careers and pursue their passions. Today, Carrie and friends would likely land in a borough. Also, digital technology now plays as much a role in twenty-something social lives as bar-hopping and club-going, which would also set the stories of four contemporary twenty-somethings far apart from those of the four mature women we know so well. In 2008 Carrie wouldn't be dumped via an old-fashioned Post-It note. She'd get the bad news in a text message from the guy or a local gossip girl.
I think the seed for such a project has already been planted. At several times throughout the Sex movie viewers glimpse young female foursomes making their way around town. There are as many stories to tell about one of those quartets as there have been about the four fabulous females who have now conquered movies as well as television.
Certainly, New York City -- widely regarded as the fifth lead character in the Sex franchise -- will always be a fertile breeding ground for countless stories about people seeking success in all areas of their lives. (Friends, about post-Gen X twenty-somethings in the same locale, ran for ten hearty years and, like Sex, went out on top.)
I ran this idea past a number of young and middle age women over the weekend, and they all thought it was terrific. Most of them had just seen Sex, and they all said that they enjoyed looking at the clothes, the shoes, the purses, the locales and the guys as much as following the continuing stories of Carrie and her friends. They cared not one whit that the overall package was utterly unreal in its presentation of so many lives in which money is no object at all, especially amid the ravages of the current recession. Like moviegoers in the Great Depression and World War II, they were seeking escapism, and they were thrilled to find it in the form of multiple love stories about women they could enjoy watching. They laughed. They cried. And they all said they would welcome another series just like Sex that could take them out of their everyday lives on a regular basis and give them fresh material to deconstruct over cocktails or dinner with their girlfriends.
They'll all dash to theaters for the Sex sequel, if it actually comes to pass. But why should the movie business have all the fun?
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