“Bridesmaids” cast members, from left: Melissa McCarthy, Ellie Kemper, Rose Byrne, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig. The film earned almost $170 million domestically last year. (Suzanne Hanover/AP/UNIVERSAL PICTURES)

“It is always a shock to people at studios that women do go see movies,” Nora Ephron said this spring.

Ephron, who passed away Tuesday at 71, and whose films included the beloved “Sleepless in Seattle” and “When Harry Met Sally,” knew a thing or two about making movies that women wanted to see. She also knew how hard it was to get them on the screen.

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.

The multiplex numbers this summer seem to be building the case, too. “Snow White and the Huntsman” didn’t shatter records but did exceed expectations with a $56 million opening weekend. “Brave,” the first film from Pixar with a female lead, opened at No. 1 last weekend with a domestic box office gross just over $66 million. These films fall into the typical male wheelhouse — big budgets and lots of action — with one big exception: They star women.

Putting more women onscreen, making more movies that appeal to women or in some other way showing that Hollywood understands that women do go to movies isn’t just about gender balance or equal treatment. It’s about the bottom line.

Another secret is that all those reliable boys — the ones who love comic books and whom the big studios court with their summer fare — are becoming less and less reliable. This is partly because of a shift in how people get their entertainment. The millennial generation, both men and women, is not developing the movie-going habit in the same way Generation X and the Baby Boomers did. Box office analyst Jeff Bock told the entertainment news site the Wrap last year: “There’s more distractions today than ever before. Generation X may have grown up going to ‘Star Wars,’ but Generation Y grew up playing the ‘Star Wars’ video game.”

Hollywood is indeed nervous about the growth of video games. In 2010, the game “Call of Duty: Black Ops” made $367 million in 24 hours in the United States and Britain. Data from the Entertainment Software Association, a video game trade group, show that men and women ages 18 to 35 who play video games report going to the movies less, with the share of men who say so significantly larger than the share of women — 67 percent vs. 50 percent.

Compounding the problem is that you can’t really get more women onscreen without more women behind the scenes. As Martha Lauzen, director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, says, “Men tend make stories about male characters . . . and women tend to make films about female characters.” According to the center’s data, in 2011 women made up 18 percent of directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers and editors working on the 250 top-grossing domestic films. Fourteenpercent of writers and a measly 5 percent of directors were women.

At a June event celebrating women in movies, Meryl Streep, a force for women in film just as Eprhon was, made a bold statement, which soon went viral, that in the past five years, “five little movies” aimed at female audiences — “The Help,” “The Iron Lady,” “Bridesmaids,” Mamma Mia” and “The Devil Wears Prada” — delivered more than $1.6 billion globally. Why is it so hard to get these films made? she asked. “Don’t they want the money?”


Melissa Silverstein is the founder and editor of Women and Hollywood, and the co-founder and artistic director of the Athena Film Festival.

Read more from Outlook:

Why we should toss out chick flicks

Friend us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter.