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Erik Lundegaard Headshot

The Most Popular Movies of All Time are Chick Flicks

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I don't know how articles about chick flicks -- like this one yesterday in the New York Times, or this response from Melissa Silverstein -- can exist without somebody mentioning the obvious: the most popular movies of all time are chick flicks.

The highest-grossing film of all time, both domestically and internationally, is Titanic, a chick flick. The highest-grossing domestic film of all time, after you adjust for inflation, is Gone With the Wind, a chick flick. The third-highest-grossing domestic film of all time, after you adjust for inflation, is The Sound of Music, a chick flick.

Moreover, all three films have the same basic storyline: A woman choosing between two suitors against a backdrop of historic tragedy.

So Rose has to choose between Jack and Cal (no choice at all, really) as she sails on the maiden voyage of the Titanic.

So Scarlett has to choose between Rhett and Ashley (a little more difficult, but not much) as she struggles to survive and thrive during the U.S. Civil War.

And so Maria has to choose between Captain von Trapp and God (perhaps the most difficult choice of all) during the 1938 annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany.

If Hollywood is looking for a template on how to make a blockbuster, this is it: A woman choosing between two men (that's how you get women in the seats) against a backdrop of historic tragedy (that's how you get the men in the seats).

Given how much money Titanic made -- $1.8 billion worldwide, more than $700 million ahead of the second-highest-grossing film, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and almost a billion dollars ahead of the highest-grossing film from last year, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End -- I've always been surprised that Hollywood hasn't attempted to make more of these types of films. Then I found out they had. A friend, a screenwriter in Hollywood, told me that in the late '90s he worked on a water-themed movie because water-themed movies were big then. He said that was the lesson the studios picked up from Titanic's success: People like water.

Some part of me doesn't quite believe this. Some part of me thinks, "Surely the people in charge are smarter than that." Then I remember that great line about the Nixon administration, and people in power in general, from All the President's Men: "The truth is these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand."

Some may argue that the above films aren't really chick flicks. That chick flicks are smaller-scaled, modern and light. That there is no historic tragedy in chick flicks.

Semantics.

Here's the point. "Chick flicks" implies that movies for and about women are their own genre, or sub-genre, and don't do well at the box office. That implication is 180 degrees from the truth. Boys may flock to Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings, and Jurassic Park, but they don't flock the way that girls flocked to Titanic. Not even close

In fact, in order to create a blockbuster, all you've got to do is find the right actress, the right actors, the right historic tragedy, and then cross your fingers that you've created Titanic rather than Pearl Harbor. Which, I should add, still grossed $449 million at the worldwide box office.

The formula works even when it doesn't.