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With strong female characters, Hollywood suffers from a fear of failure

What women will go see, observers agree, are groups of women in comedies, a la "Sex and the City," "Mamma Mia!" and "He's Just Not That Into You." (Each of them, it bears noting, was based on a popular TV show, musical and book.) "Women like going out in groups to watch women interacting in groups," says Paul Dergarabedian, box office analyst for "And they are very loyal. If they discover something they like, they tell their friends about it. Women were social networking way before Facebook."

And what what women like, at least for now, Dergarabedian says, are traditional narratives. "There's no 'Bourne Identity' with a woman starring in it right now," he says. "It's almost as if in real life, women want to be empowered and in control, but on-screen they seem to like the old-fashioned damsel-in-distress, love-struck female."

A changing biz

This state of affairs distresses Melissa Silverstein, who tracks women's issues in the entertainment industry on her Web site Women & Hollywood. "One of the things making me nervous this fall is the box office of movies like 'Jennifer's Body' and 'Whip It,' " says Silverstein. "I call them 'girl-power' movies. They're the movies I dream about for my feminist future. And the fact that people didn't go to see those movies makes me want to weep.

"Figuring out how to reach women and young women is the challenge for this business. They don't know how to do it well. Car companies have figured it out, yet Hollywood has not figured it out."

One reason why we see fewer strong female leads these days is a changing business model, notes Silverstein. In the 1970s, 1980s and into the 1990s -- years when stars like Jane Fonda, Barbra Streisand, Sally Field and Goldie Hawn were making movies in a diverse number of genres -- studios were not, as they are now, subsidiaries of multi-corporations, responsible for contributing to quarterly bottom lines. With economic pressures greater than ever, studios are looking for movies that are guaranteed to make $100 million their first weekend out. The result: More Paul Blarts, fewer Erin Brockoviches.

The upshot, Obst says, is that "it's easier for male executives to get jobs now, because they want to develop male-oriented material. Girls don't grow up reading comic books or playing video games, or with Transformer or G.I. Joe toys. So the material they're looking for isn't necessarily as familiar to female executives who read books, which is becoming practically a liability. That's a real problem. That's how it becomes systemic."

For his part, Dergarabedian sees the recent trend as part of a cycle that will eventually shift. "Maybe someone hasn't built the perfect beast yet," he says. "Ultimately, everything comes down to the movie. If the movie's good, it can cross over all kinds of lines and break all sorts of rules." Obst concurs. "Are we ever going to see strong women again in movies? We might see them in thrillers. We might see them in an elegant horror movie like 'The Silence of the Lambs' or 'Rosemary's Baby.' The movie just has to be a bang-out narrative with a star people want to see. But dramas? They're on television."

Meanwhile, Swank recently wrapped "Betty Anne Waters," based on a true story of a woman who put herself through law school to exonerate her wrongfully accused brother. It's a bona fide strong-woman drama, says producer Andrew Sugerman, in the tradition of "Erin Brockovich." The film has yet to be picked up, but Sugerman is optimistic. "We have a distributor very interested," he says.

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