Photo by Universal/Weinstein/DreamWorks
Earlier this month, Meryl Streep talked numbers at the Women in Film Lucy & Crystal Awards. To paraphrase her point, there were five movies over five years -- "The Help" (2011) "Bridesmaids" (2011), "The Iron Lady" (2011), "Mamma Mia!" (2008), and "The Devil Wears Prada" (2008) -- that earned a collective $1.6 billion for Hollywood. True, she starred in three of them, but if they had been cop movies, zombie thrillers, or Westerns, there would be a stream of films trying to cash in on the women's market. So Streep's question -- "Why don't studios want the money?" -- hangs heavy in the air.
TV Writer Nell Scovell ("Warehouse 13," "Monk") had the most straightforward answer: "They want the money but don't want to give women the power. It's a conundrum."
Animator Signe Baumane responded: "I think Hollywood is stuck in the notion that only 21-year-old men go to movies. The New Yorker article on Ben Stiller says that much too. Big studios are like big animals, they can't adapt to small changes quickly, but small changes accumulate into BIG ones before soon."
We hope so. In the meantime, where do we stand?
Those five movies are just the tip of the iceberg
If you add in the year's top grosser, "The Hunger Games," and the movies from "The Twilight Saga," that earnings number grows exponentially. Then there's a surprise hit like "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," which grossed approximately $38 million domestically and $121 million internationally on the backs of Judi Dench and Maggie Smith (anybody who's watched TV's "Downton Abbey," starring Smith as the dowager matriarch who speaks her very sharp mind, wouldn't be surprised). Add in the gushy Nicholas Sparks drama "The Vow" with Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum, and there's another 2012 film that hosed up $194 million globally, following on other films in the successful Sparks franchise ("The Notebook," "Dear John"), which have frugal production budgets and easily earn out theatrically. Toss in the female-dominated action franchises like Kate Beckinsale's "Underworld" ($459 million worldwide) and Milla Jovovich's "Resident Evil" ($675 million worldwide) and the money grows. You, readers, can probably add more to this list.
One answer: The demographics within Hollywood
When it comes to green-lighting films in Hollywood, women don't have their hands on the switch -- and those who do tend to be part of a male scrum. They made it to the top by assimilating into the male studio culture, not by rebelling against it. On the production side, a San Diego State University study last year found that among writers, directors, editors, cinematographers, producers, and executive producers, the division of labor was 82 percent men and 18 percent women. The disconnect is that the audiences do not reflect that same split. The gap between 18 percent and 51 percent is a red flag. Serving that market has a huge profit potential. Healthy industries should be constantly seeking growth, and this is an underserved market.
Another answer: The power of critics as gatekeepers
The critics function as gatekeepers -- telling readers what to see and what to skip. Guess what? Men dominate that arena, too. That's why we've seen Michael Cera lose his virginity so many times in coming-of-age comedies and there were so many inexplicably positive reviews for "The Three Stooges." A San Diego State study based on 100 newspapers, in 2007, concluded that men dominate movie criticism in a way that echoes male dominance behind the screen. In a study conducted by Martha M. Lauzen at the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, 77 percent of film critics are male. As a female member of the New York Film Critics Circle, which includes newspaper, magazine, and online critics, I've always been a fortunate minority. According to our website (www.nyfcc.com), there are 31 members, including the late Andrew Sarris. Of that number, seven (or 23 percent) are female -- and that's considerable growth since I joined the organization in 1995.
[Related: Why the 'Spider-Man' reboot?]
One solution: Women, vote with your box-office dollars:
Go see "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" or Streep's upcoming middle-age marriage comedy, "Hope Springs," or the cluster of microbudgeted and intensely satisfying movies like Lynn Shelton's "Your Sister's Sister"; Sarah Polley's "Take This Waltz" (opening Friday); or Nancy Savoca's "Union Square" (opening July 13). If we build the audience, the product will come -- and it will come from a variety of sources, small and large.
Another solution: Women, make movies
Meryl Streep joined with director Phyllida Lloyd to make "Mamma Mia!" and "The Iron Lady." She voted with her box-office clout. This is what Mira Sorvino is doing with "Union Square," Emily Blunt with "Your Sister's Sister," and Drew Barrymore with her underrated movie "Whip It!"
And another solution: Opening-weekend grosses are not king, er, queen
Let's ignore Hollywood's obsession with opening-weekend numbers and echo models like that of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," building the female audiences one movie and one weekend at a time. Carla Stockton, editor in chief of Dapt'd, explained: "Women, especially women in the next-up age brackets, are more likely to weigh critics' reviews, friends' word of mouth, etc., and they will wait to see the film till it's been out awhile. Too much focus, it seems, gets placed on opening weekend. So, while the industry is aware that we want films with strong women's POV, it is intimidated by the pressure of first weekend from delving too deeply into that fountain. I also think we writers must persevere in creating more, better, stronger, more compelling women for stage and screen."
I'm definitely with Carla: We're listening, and we're going to be writing, producing, and directing the movies we want to see -- and supporting them in print. And when one person speaks out, like Streep did, we'll rally around her, until our voices are heard.
And there's some reason for optimism. According to USA Today's Susan Wloszczyna: "I think much like Snow White, they are slowly waking up to the fact that if you please them, women will show up in hordes, and even for more than one viewing. I was astonished and gratified that 'Snow White and the Huntsman,' which is essentially an action film with two female leads, did so well. How often does that happen? And even Pixar finally woke up and smelled the estrogen with "Brave." There is movement afoot. The female screenwriting ranks have been growing, and now there just needs to be more female directors doing big studio films."
See the trailer for 'Brave':