'Sex' sexcess gives leg up to female films

New model emerging in shrinking specialty field

"Sexcess" story: Looking at "Sex and the City's" phenomenal $56.8 million launch last weekend, it's clear that Hollywood has some valuable lessons to learn about the moviegoing audience.

On the most basic level, Warner Bros. and New Line's "sexcess" with Michael Patrick King's film tells us that women (both under and over 25) are an audience Hollywood's ignored for too many years. Given their passion for "Sex," it would be insane for Hollywood not to get busy trying to tap into this sizable segment of the marketplace.

The conventional wisdom has been that women aren't a great audience to go after because they typically don't come as couples (purchasing two tickets) but as individuals (purchasing one ticket). That didn't make any difference to "Sex's" fantasy opening. What's more, the film held up brilliantly -- grossing $5.5 million Monday, another $5.5 million Tuesday and $5.1 million Wednesday for a mid-week cume of $73 million. With numbers like those you'd think "Sex" is a comic book movie about four female superheroes -- well, in a way, maybe it is. It proves that if you sell enough single tickets it adds up to the same kind of big money you can otherwise make by selling pairs of tickets. The notion that women alone can't establish a film as a boxoffice powerhouse has just gone out the bedroom window.

Looking ahead, this should give female friendly films a leg up. It certainly makes sense for Warner Bros. to plan a "Sex" sequel, as it says it is, and it also suggests that the marketplace can support more films targeted to women. While there are no guarantees that other gal-pal product will have as much impact as "Sex," it's now fair to say that the potential for such films to perform well is probably way better than anyone would have predicted before "Sex."

Warner is in the happy position, by the way, of having several other female-driven movies on its release schedule that could resonate with "Sex" addicts. The first of these, "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2," opens Aug. 6. Directed by Sanaa Hamri, it stars Amber Tamblyn, Blake Lively, America Ferrera and Alexis Biedel, all of whom starred in the 2005 original directed by Ken Kwapis. Although the original "Sisterhood" only grossed $39.1 million domestically, it wasn't an expensive movie and was therefore able to establish a franchise for theatrical and DVD release. Now that "Sisterhood" is a brand name, its sequel has a better chance to connect with its core audience, which is probably younger than the "Sex" crowd.

Warner also has Ken Kwapis's next film, "He's Just Not That Into You," on its calendar for release Oct. 24. It's one of several New Line films in addition to "Sex" that wound up in Warner's hands after Time Warner scrapped New Line. Based on the best-seller by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo, it stars Ben Affleck, Jennifer Aniston, Drew Barrymore, Kevin Connolly, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Connelly, Ginnifer Goodwin and Scarlet Johansson. "You" has the potential to follow in "Sex's" footsteps given its brand name chick-lit roots and its all star cast.

Another film targeted to females that Warner could wind up releasing later this year is "The Women," a remake of the 1939 George Cukor classic that starred Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell and Paulette Goddard. The new film, written and directed by Diane English (the feature directing debut for the "Murphy Brown" executive producer-writer), stars Annette Bening, Eva Mendes, Meg Ryan, Carrie Fisher, Candice Bergen, Jada Pinkett Smith, Debra Messing, Cloris Leachman and Bette Midler. A terrific trailer for "Women" was playing in theaters showing "Sex" last weekend and can also be found on the Internet.

"Women" was to have opened this fall via Picturehouse, which Warner recently shuttered as a specialty distribution label. It's unclear right now when or if "Women" will surface, but in the afterglow of "Sex" its prospects for a theatrical release may have just improved.

There's not a lot of other female appeal product on the horizon. Universal has something to sing about in "Mama Mia," opening July 18. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, it stars Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Amanda Seyfried and Colin Firth and the music of ABBA. Given its brand name status thanks to the global hit stage show of the same name and its familiar soundtrack, "Mama"-the-movie stands to connect with its core audience of women under and over 25.

Also on deck for release this summer is Miramax's "Brideshead Revisited," based on the classic novel by Evelyn Waugh. Directed by Julian Jarrold ("Becoming Jane"), it opens in limited release July 25 and expands in August. Starring are Emma Thompson and Michael Gambon. Its target audience is adult women and they're likely to be interested since there's so little that will be competing then for their moviegoing time and money.

Thanks to "Sex" the handwriting's now on the wall in Hollywood not to forget the female audience. Moreover, the fact that a film whose principal appeal is to women can do dynamite boxoffice business suggests that Hollywood's slavish devotion to making four-quadrant appeal films may be a mistake. Two quadrants -- as in younger and older females -- is enough to make the right movies work nicely. By setting out to make films that appeal to everyone Hollywood has significantly upped the cost of producing and marketing films. These movies cost a fortune to make because they need visual effects, large scale production values and superstar casting to give them their required broad appeal. They also cost tons of money to market because they must reach all demos and that typically translates into massive network TV buys, which are the costliest way to market movies.

By contrast, films aimed at one or two demos are less demanding to make. Better yet, they can be marketed to their core audience and don't need to reach everyone. Cable TV is an efficient and less expensive way to market such movies because cable networks are very targeted in terms of the audiences they deliver. An adult female movie, for instance, can be marketed on cable networks like Bravo, Food, HGTV, Oxygen, Lifetime or WE and the message will get out to exactly the right audience with no wasted circulation.

It's also worth bearing in mind that Hollywood's love affair with 18 year old males is predicated on the view that no other demo does enough moviegoing to matter. That, of course, is only true because for years Hollywood's been specializing in making movies for 18 year old males. They certainly haven't been releasing pictures that adult females want to see, so why should anyone be surprised that adult females weren't doing much moviegoing until they discovered "Sex?"

Of course, there really wasn't much discovering for them to do since "Sex" was such a high profile property after its six year run on HBO and four years of cable re-runs. Actually, now that cable networks are developing their own original series and achieving hit ratings with them, Hollywood should start regarding these shows as potential movie material. It's time to start thinking about feature films based on series like "Mad Men," "The Starter Wife," "The Tudors," "The L Word," "Entourage" and, of course, "The Sopranos."

The great advantage of material that emerges this way is that the characters and their back stories have been developed over a period of time. Hit cable series are the equivalent of a movie franchise in terms of brand name recognition and there's a built-in audience to go after. Considering that the cable networks are mostly owned by the same global media giants that already own the studios, it's an idea that makes sense.

Shrinking specialties: With Paramount Vantage having just been folded into Paramount's own marketing and distribution operations, with Picturehouse and Warner Independent Pictures having bitten the dust and with New Line having been turned into a slimmed down ghost of its former self, it's clear that Hollywood's concept of specialized distribution is undergoing major changes. The old specialized distribution model has been scrapped by several studios and a new model is emerging.

Disney's Miramax Films, Universal's Focus Features, News Corp.'s Fox Searchlight Pictures and Sony's Sony Pictures Classics as well as independents like Lionsgate and The Weinstein Co. are all specialty operations that have had their share of success over the years. But given the changing marketplace, they could be making changes in the kind of product they produce or acquire in the future.

There's no question that specialized product has frequently failed to live up to expectations and that some of its biggest failures have been the very films that were the darlings at festivals that sold for big money after all-night bidding wars. The endless procession of dark, dreary depressing movies from would-be auteurs about subjects that moviegoers just don't care about may finally be on its way out. In its place, it would be great to see some low budget story-driven dramas and comedies with broader appeal -- the kind of movies studios used to make as part of their own product mix but no longer make because they consider the risk too great and the potential return too modest. In other words, why should the majors waste their time making movies that, if they're lucky, might gross $50 million domestically?

In the hands of specialized units, however, smaller budgeted films can turn a nice profit on a $50 million domestic gross and the subsequent DVD sales -- as long as they're not the dark downers that moviegoers have been rejecting. When you look back at some of the most successful specialty releases you find titles like "Juno," "Sideways," "Little Miss Sunshine," "The Queen," "No Country For Old Men," "Lost in Translation," "Atonement" and "Brokeback Mountain." As different as they all are, what they have in common is that they're all intelligent films that were commercial enough to attract audiences. Where the specialty divisions have run into trouble is in releasing films that were so narrow in their appeal that one wondered how they found financing in the first place. These were films that only a critic could love!
If specialized distributors start releasing product with broader appeal the result should be a more mainstream awards season in which films seeking Oscar consideration have actually been seen by audiences. That, in turn, should be a blessing to the Academy and its ratings challenged Oscar telecast where viewers find themselves with nothing to root for because they haven't seen the movies.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com
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