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Note to Studios: Stop Trying to Get the Boys Back and Chase the Women

Thompson on Hollywood By Susan Cartsonis | Thompson on Hollywood March 1, 2012 at 4:20PM

Telling stories from the female perspective is good box office. However, only 16 percent of movies are made specifically with women in mind, even though half of the ticket buying public is female, which means Hollywood is missing the bet financially—with a few notable exceptions that prove my point.
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"Bridesmaids" Stars at Oscars
People "Bridesmaids" Stars at Oscars

Telling stories from the female perspective is good box office.  However, only 16 percent of movies are made specifically with women in mind, even though half of the ticket buying public is female, which means Hollywood is missing the bet financially—with a few notable exceptions that prove my point.

There are many reasons why there’s a dearth of movies made for women: it has to do with how women are treated in the boardroom, the pressures and logistics of the business, and “conventional wisdom” as opposed to facts and the reality of the changing audience landscape.

Note to the studios:  stop trying to get the boys back and go after the women.

Here are some facts:  not only do women account for more than 50% of the ticket buying audience, they often choose the movie a couple sees, and choose movies for their children.

Here are some movie marketer/distributor observations:  Women are often repeat viewers, and view cross-generationally – as they did for "The Princess Diaries," which was made for grannies and five-year olds but all the women of in between ages came too, making it a hit that grossed $126 million in world wide box office—although it cost just $26 million to make. 

Women view therapeutically too—how many women do you know who watch "Sense and Sensibility," "Pride and Prejudice," or "Bridget Jones’ Diary" repeatedly and fight over who the best Mr. Darcy really is?  Movies for women don’t have to be expensive because they’re more “people powered” than special effects-powered.  Think "Twilight":  it cost  $37 million and made a $384 million return!  Or "The Help": a $22 million investment that generated $180 million at the box office – so far!  That compared to a "Transformers" or "Spiderman" or "Pirates Of The Carribean" – which we may love but they cost well over $100 million to make and don’t have nearly the profit margin of a well-made romantic comedy.

Here’s what I know in my bones:  Women have a need to hear their stories told in an authentic way.  And they’re also interested in the inner lives of men.  I know because I’m an audience member as well as a movie-maker and there are too many Friday nights when I feel that there’s nothing I really want to see.  Nothing that speaks to me personally.  And if a movie is made that speaks to me, my friends and I throw a party and go en masse!

I’ve made well over a billion dollars in movie ticket sales as an executive and a producer (leaving aside the huge ancillary markets that include DVDs that would triple the amount of money made).  I’ve done this by making movies from a female perspective, often with female writers, subject matter, and directors.  So I don’t believe that the female audience isn’t a good audience.  I know it’s a great audience.

I’ve had to fight to get a lot of these movies made and marketed well.   I’ve had to fight for marketing dollars when I should be able to use my energies to make more and better movies rather than to justify the market.  I think, no, I know that within the business we can and should change the way we perceive women and entertainment for women.

There are great champions for the female perspective such as Geraldine Laybourne, the founder of Nickelodeon, Oxygen and the Chairman of Alloy Entertainment.  She told me that she feels that we need more female media company owners.  In other words, women who have the power and support to “green light” material that is unique and speaks to the hearts and minds of women.   Men who run the major media companies give the go-ahead to projects that speak to them most viscerally—and I have observed that the visceral overrules any number crunching a company engages in to predict success.

Clearly, telling stories to women is good business.  And when men come too---well it just adds to the profitability.  Look at how well "Bridesmaids" did. Here’s to Judd Apatow for extending a hand to his fellow comic geniuses Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumulo and helping "Bridesmaids" get made.  But look at what a well-documented struggle this was!

The studio seemed afraid that men would stay away from a movie that showed the iconography of a line of bridesmaids on a movie poster, so they seemingly marketed almost exclusively to men pre-release.  In fact, men went in groups, a phenomenon that they called “wolf-packs.”

Anecdotally, I found that a lot of women stayed away that first weekend thinking that the movie was purely a gross out comedy, until they heard "Bridesmaids" had romantic and emotional content with female-friendly humor.  When they did go, they found exceptionally original moments like the “cupcake making scene.” I’m going to go out on a limb and say:  had the studio done more marketing to women pre-release, the film, (which cost  $32 million and made $169 million) would have made 20 to 30 percent more money because women would have come in even larger numbers that opening weekend.  And I’m going to go out on another limb and say that men probably loved the cupcake making scene---because it’s a little peephole into the inner lives of women.  They want to know what makes us tick, particularly if it’s told in an original way.   When we did the market research on an extraordinarily female oriented and female marketed film (it was even an Oprah’s Book Club pick!) we found that men rated the film even higher than women.  Turns out men want to know about the inner lives of women, too.

So my solution?  Get out and vote with your dollar, see women’s movies.  Women drive over 60% of messaging in social media---talk about the movies you like and encourage your friends to go.  If you’re a film maker, keep making films and find a way to invest in your own work financially so that you can drive the creative and financial decision making process.  Your voice and your perspective are legit and profound and powerful—and will find an audience.

[Producer and former studio executive Susan Cartsonis first published this article at VitaminW.]

This article is related to: Women in Film, Studios


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.