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Women's Films: A New Box Office Trend?

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The conventional wisdom in Hollywood -- no matter that it is whispered about only anonymously in most corners -- is that women equal bad box office. Last year a highly placed executive at a major studio reportedly even expressed this sentiment in public, saying he was no longer interested in scripts with female leads.

Because Hollywood has spent the last decade getting itself into a huge jam by focusing everything on opening weekend dollars, movies by and about women have become an afterthought to the unyielding and misogynistic belief that women can't direct big budget flicks -- and more dismissive, that the entire gender can't be relied on as customers because too few of us buy tickets on opening weekends. A recent Variety article articulated this position: "Hollywood has long relied on female pics to be dependable earners that open modestly and play long, rather than being big grossers right from the start."

But statistics, including those from the industry's own lobbying organization the Motion Picture Association of America, show that women do go to the movies in equal numbers to men. Women just don't only go to see films by and about women. Blockbusters dominate the multiplexes in cities and towns across the country, and films made by and about women, with budgets and distribution invariably smaller, get lost in the shuffle. If you can't find a film, how is it possible to support it?

Welcome to 2008, a year that will be forever remembered as the moment we almost had a woman Democratic nominee for president and, of course, for the election of an African American man as president. But for those following films, there is another interesting statistic to note. As of today, there are two women-centric films -- Sex and the City and Mamma Mia! -- in the top 10 at the box office for the year. Mamma Mia! is (shockingly!) even written, produced and directed by women. This is big, not only because both successes were so unexpected, but because the opening weekend numbers for Sex and the City rivaled other blockbusters that tend to rely on effects and technology, and Sex was an old fashioned (yet heavily marketed) story about four girl friends.

The last time anything like this happened was 2002, with the huge success of sleeper hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding as well as the musical Chicago. So the big question is: how can we take this year's successes to propel women forward and continue to prove that we are not a niche?

Martha Lauzen, the director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, the entity that has tracked women's achievement in front of and behind the scenes over the last decade, decided to confront the perception of women not being reliable patrons. Her recently released study, "Women @ the Box Office: A Study of the Top 100 Worldwide Grossing Films," shows that "overall, when women and men filmmakers have similar budgets for their films, the resulting box office grosses are also similar. In other words, the sex of filmmakers does not determine box office grosses."

Lauzen lays it out even clearer: "First of all women are not bad box office, onscreen or behind the scenes. This study should seriously call into question any notion that people might have that women can't open movies like men do or women can't make films that earn similar amounts at the box office."

But the troubling news about the study, and the state of women in Hollywood, is that because there are so few films made with female leads -- 10 percent compared to 59 percent for male leads -- in order to get any quantifiable comparison, the data had to be extrapolated to include films that have a female character as part of an ensemble. That is downright depressing and shows the importance of changing this perception that women are not successful at the box office.

Lauzen's data shows that it's all in the dollars. "It comes down to the size of the budget. If you give men and women similar budgets they will make similar grosses." But let's be real. Films with female protagonists or prominent women in an ensemble have lower production budgets (by almost $30 million). It doesn't take an economist to understand that it costs more to blow things up than it costs to have people talking, and women have a tendency to actually have conversations in films. Though the center couldn't obtain them, marketing budgets, which tend to follow production budgets, are probably lower for these films. So they make less money, which in turn fuels the impression that women's films are not successful.

Because opening weekend dominates the conversation of success, and large budgets lead to large opening grosses, women's films are continually marginalized. Sex and the City defied expectations. Mamma Mia! has run successfully for months without a huge opening weekend, landing it in the top ten -- and it has made more than $418 million overseas. However Lauzen believes "we're dealing with perceptions and it can be really hard to change those perceptions even when you have quantitative, hard evidence that the belief is incorrect ...What it really points out is that this is about bias, it's about sexism and trying to overcome that."

So when will Hollywood stop being surprised that women's films do well and start investing in their success? I'm waiting for a light bulb to go off inside the head of some studio executive, who will finally declare all the flukes of success for women a certified trend.

Originally written for The Women's Media Center

Melissa's blog: Women & Hollywood