She was speaking at a screening of “This Is My Life,” the first film she directed, and mentioned that she hoped the huge success of “Bridesmaids,” which earned almost $170 million domestically last year, would mark the last time anyone would say that women don’t go to the movies. “But I promise you they are still saying it,” Ephron added. “It’s still frightening to them to not make something that is a tent pole with a possible sequel with a video game.”
Unfortunately, she was right. But Hollywood should be even more frightened of what will happen if it keeps taking female filmgoers for granted.
“Women have been left out, undervalued and marginalized in terms of the movies that are released and the way films are marketed,” says Hollywood.com analyst Paul Dergarabedian. Yet even while being ignored, women purchase half the movie tickets in the nation, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. Imagine the successes if there were more female characters onscreen than the 33 percent that appeared in the 100 top-grossing films in 2011. And imagine if more than 11 percent of those movies had female protagonists.
There is a clear box office upside when films are made for the hungry, underserved female audience. The 2008 movie “Sex and the City” raked in $57 million on its opening weekend, and its opening-day audience was 85 percent women, according to Deadline Hollywood. “Mamma Mia” wound up grossing more than $600 million worldwide. The first installment of the “Twilight” movies made $69 million on its opening weekend with a largely female audience. And its sequel “New Moon” more than doubled that, with nearly $143 million.
One secret is that the blockbusters Hollywood so relies on would not succeed without women. Films such as “The Avengers” — for which women bought 40 percent of tickets on its opening weekend — need female audience members to become true global phenomena. Yet hit films with majority-female audiences are often dismissed as flukes. Making movies about women is like being on a roller coaster, says longtime producer Lynda Obst, who worked with Ephron on several films. She says that after a success, people in the film industry are focused on more female-driven movies for about six months, then everyone “miraculously suffers amnesia in the wake of another kind of hit,” and the momentum stalls.
While women have shown that they can create a box office hit as eager ticket buyers, the next step is to prove that women starring onscreen can also bring in the guys. There are some recent positive signs on this front, including “Bridesmaids,” which attracted both men and women, and “The Hunger Games,” this spring’s monster success across all demographics, with a worldwide gross of more than $670 million.