Monday, May 05, 2008

Movies for Boys of Summer?

Occasional Superheroine had an article up today about the lack of movies which come out in the summer which are "geared towards women". I found Valerie's questions legitimate, to an extent. But I think it oversimplifies the business of the Blockbuster movie and how and why it is made.

Valerie's post actually was spawned by an article in The Times entitled "Come Summer, Is There a Real Woman in the Multiplex?", which reminded me entirely too much of the sort of stuff you would read in RTF's Narrative Strategies class.

What becomes clear after a quick read of the article isn't that there's a lack of movies with a female audience in mind (and I would argue, the huge blockbusters try to be a big tent and include women as well). Rather, it seems that author Manohla Dargis basically doesn't care for the mainstream faire that comes out in the summertime. And has blacked out many movies and arguments which she might find inconvenient to her thesis.

Because the article reminds me so of RTF course quibbling, it relies on the same mish-mash of Gender Studies 101 to condemn the Apatow movies for showing non-He-Men, who discuss their emotions and should therefore be identified as women. An odd condemnation when she's simultaneously condemning summer movies for their machismo. What perfect balance of yin and yang Dargis is seeking in her male stars is as elusive as what she seeks in her female stars and stories.

With the other hand, Dargis complains that the women of "Sex in the City" are also not "real" women. Especially interesting as the debut of "Sex in the City" on HBO was, according to critics and fans alike, heralding a realistic depiction of the urban sophisticate. She has no praise for the Travelling Pants, Momma Mia!, or any other movie she has yet to see, and damnation for those she has seen.

So what, exactly, is Dargis looking for? It's easy to roll your eyes at movie's coming out, and its okay to criticize if you have a point. But her premise of "not enough movies for REAL women" seems a bit... well, if I was a lady, I'd be a bit offended. What movie is Dargis prescribing? If you enjoy the adventures of Indiana Jones, are you a traitor to your sex? What is this perfect movie of complicated female characters that would make he same $200 million opening weekend as Iron Man? Because it seems Dargis is completely dismissive of action movies in general, so I wouldn't bring up the recent spate of B-movies featuring tough-guy ladies fighting zombies, werewolves, vampires... what have you.

Val asks some questions.

1. Has Hollywood decided that women are not a viable audience?
No. But female-centric movies don't open to $200 million. Just as male-centric movies featuring martial arts, etc... don't open at $200 million.

There's a difference between there being no movies for women and the marketing push the Tentpole pictures receive. The sheer number of ads for Speed Racer and Iron man may give a feeling of some disproportionate balance, which may or may not actually exist. But the actual movie is not the point of a big summer pre-packaged blockbuster. "Sex in the City" won't sell millions in action figures at Target. Nor will "Made of Honor". You won't see Patrick Dempsey's face on a Coke cup at Burger King. Or Sarah Jessica Parker dolls in the BK Kids' Club meal. If "Made of Honor" loses money, the machine of the Hollywood Blockbuster won't make sure everyone gets paid. Whether Iron Man makes or loses money at the box office, the license rights alone may make up the deficit.

2. What movies DO women watch? In what format? Theater, DVD, what?
You know, back when I asked What Do Women Want in Superhero Comics, I got slammed pretty hard for asking what women want, as if I was asking a herd of people who all behaved alike. I think the question shouldn't be "women". It should be: how do mothers of 5-10 years olds enjoy entertainment? Do they take their children to see Iron Man? Do they make time for themselves to see movies of their choice? What about bad mothers who don't know they shouldn't take their kid to see "Saw"? What about Grandmothers? And professionals? Are they watching Lost on DVD instead of going to movies? Do they have time to go to the theater? Are they more aware of who the stars are than what movies they're actually in?

But, mostly, its a goofy question. What do guys watch? They don't all watch the same things. Now, comic book nerdy guys... we kind of do all watch the same things. We just enjoy them to varying degrees.

3. Does Hollywood assume that women either do not watch movies in theaters or will go to wherever their significant others will take them to see or that they are so busy mopping floors that they haven't even given the topic much thought?

Well, that's a loaded question. And I won't speak for Hollywood. Or women. But with movies costing $200 million dollars, I'm pretty sure the studios do some research to figure out what is going to be profitable.

But if the last five movies "for women" came out and all made between 50-75 million, how much are you going to spend on the next one you make to ensure a profit? Probably less than $50 million, I'd assume. From that point, I assume people who know more about marketing a movie than I would know how to narrowcast advertising to the presumd audience.

Anecdotally, I do believe women are more likely to see a movie of their partner's choosing than their male partner will really, really want to see "27 Dresses". Other than that, I refuse to comment on this, because it seems like talking about this would lead me into trouble with Jamie. Who went with Jason and me to see "Doomsday", even though we all agreed she would not like it.

4. Is a movie like "Indiana Jones," as mentioned in the article, not a movie of female interest because Indy and his sidekick themselves are not females? Or is this sort of reductionist?

I think its kind of reductionist.

As I mentioned, some movies are just going to overwhelm those niche categories. As an example: Titanic didn't make a billion dollars because of squeeing 13 year old girls who found Leo non-threatening. A lot of people saw that movie. It seems that a franchise like Indiana Jones can also have that cross-over appeal, once its ingrained in popular culture.

5. According to the article, the amount of female movie directors is something like 6%. Is this the movie studios fault for not hiring these women? Are these women not applying for the director track? Are they not applying to the director track because they are not interested, or because they are discouraged from doing so in school?

Uh... the Director track? In school? I went to film school, so I think I have a little bit of experience with this one (and there was no "director's track" at UT RTF. You're all doing everything from camera to feeding your actors). Honestly, my years in film school were sort of the opposite of discouraging women. They seemed a lot more focused on the opposite ideal, to look at narratives from non-traditional points of view and encourage everyone who wanted to participate.

And the hard numbers: our production track was about 40% women, 60% guys. But I would also question whether that has a direct effect on the number of directors as much as I would ask (1) if that figure 6% is accurate, (2) how many women went out to try to get features made, (3) are you counting television, documentary and directors of non-main-stream films, and (4) perhaps a bit of a rough point, but as in any industry... Life often complicates things. There are female CEO's and some female directors, producers and studio execs. But how many women decide to have a family and are unable to keep up the break-neck pace of working in the film industry to get to a point where they are given the opportunity to direct? Let alone decide to pursue something else requiring less time once the kids need parenting?

Looking for some sort of male-dominated conspiracy from film school to the directors chair is giving Hollywood entirely too much credit. There's a lot of money at play here, and decisions are made about how to be profitable. Its not a conspiracy as much as too much caution about unknown commodities.

My point being, in order to try to make a good investment, Hollywood mostly goes with what it knows. If "March of the Penguins" makes money, we get two animated penguin movies and a Bob Saget Penguin spoof within a year or so. If Iron Man made $200 million in an opening weekend, you make Iron Man 2. If Catwoman and Elektra failed to make any money (and, in fact, lost money) you put the brakes on hoping sexiness in a costume is enough to drag folks in. Then you take a long, hard look at your script for Wonder Woman and don't assume its going to rush into theaters because of T&A and a magic lasso. And if you think they're taking too long between pictures... How long between Superman IV and Superman Returns?

And, by the way, a woman is directing the next Punisher movie. So it seems Marvel doesn't believe women are off-limits when it comes to their movies.

One of the greater challenges for comic-to-movie adaptations has to be that most of the time-tested characters and ideas came from a time and place where diversity wasn't as valued as it is today, and where women held a different place in society. Keep in mind, Action Comics #1 premiered about 19 years after the 19th amendment passed. Finding female characters who starred in their own titles in a genre that typically featured male heroic archetypes for decades is going to be a bit slimmer pickings. And with the failure of two high profile characters like Elektra and Catwoman on the big screen (with terrible scripts to blame, really. Yes, I've watched most of Catwoman), its difficult to pick out who could be the female Iron Man.

Not that I think that's what Dargis is looking for. Really, I think what she'd like is to see the Oscar-season movies open in the summer and do 200 million in their first weekend. That's my guess, anyway. I'm not sure which "real" women she wants at the cinema. Are there not silly, ridiculous women in real life? Or are those silly women who will appear in comedies this summer, or the women of Sex in the City just not her cup of tea, in movies about topics which she holds in contempt, or are they just not the kind of person she personally likes to pal around with? "Real" women.

All this said, at last check, I'm not a lady. But I do know a few. And they like all kinds of movies, just how guys like all kinds of movies. CB likes Scorcese, horror, John Waters, and all kinds of stuff. Jamie likes fantasy movies and smart comedies. Nicole watches stuff that's a bit more art-house, and she likes Ocean's 11.

So if you want to know what I think at least Jamie's thinking this summer? I think she'd echo Marion Ravenhood from the first reel of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Indiana Jones. Always knew someday you'd come walking back through my door.

But, again, I'm not going to speak for her.


Fantomenos said...

The only movies I can remember Mrs. menos dragging me to are "Love Actually" and all the Bourne Movies. Hm. It seems my wife has really good taste in film. Anyway, what surprises me is that no one has successfully replicated the "Titanic" phenomenon, which is the only example I can think of of a female-centric blockbuster? Can anyone think of other examples?

mcsteans said...

Immediately after Ryan brought up this subject at dinner last night, I interjected, "what about Sex and the City, Travelling Pants, Mamma Mia, Made of Honor?". Apparently, as Ryan has explained, none of these movies are what Dargis has in mind. I'm kind of reaching here, because I've always kind of looked forward to the summer season and am puzzled to have another woman speaking for me saying there's nothing I should like. It does indeed sound like she wants the more 'Oscar quality' movies opening in the summer, but that's just not how the system works. Big dumb escapist (but sometimes awesome) blockbusters come out in summer, then September/October bring us movies that are deemed not good enough to compete in early summer and Halloween slasher movies. THEN it is time for the awards season so that the movies will be fresh in the minds of voters. These generally carry over into January. (Also around Thanksgiving is when the holiday movies start to show up. Sometimes earlier if we are unlucky.) February is where the crappy movies get dumped.

This is a pretty widely recognized cycle and I'm kind of surprised Dargis doesn't understand this. It's not going to change soon, either. Look, I may be an exception that I enjoy dumb summer blockbusters, but from what I've heard and read - a lot of other women do, too. Do I wish there were more women in the leads? Sure. I would love to see more Sigourney Weavers blowing up aliens. But that doesn't mean I don't enjoy watching Ironman, either. I will agree with her on one point and that is that I'd like to see more women directors. I'm not sure what the problem is there (is it the studios that won't hire them or the movies they are trying to get made not marketable or they're just aren't that many of them?), so I won't get into that.

I'm also confused by the term 'real' women. Are we seeing 'real' men on the movie screens? When's the last time we saw the League or Steanso (as AWESOME as this would be) jetting around in an iron suit or flinging a whale into the ocean? That's what most summer movies are about - escapism and fantasy. Not watching some 'real' woman (me) driving through Starbucks in her CRV with her golden retriever (Mel). Actually that's not a bad idea....need to get started on screenplay now......

Sorry about the rambling :)

Anonymous said...

I'm with Mcsteans. Emily enjoys summer movies as much as I do.

J.S. said...

I'm just tired of people whining about movies not getting made for various demographic groups. Here's the thing- if you want a woman's movie to be a summer blockbuster, go write one. I'm pretty sure Hollywood isn't in the habit of turning down high quality scripts that they think are going to gain a wide audience, no matter what the subject matter. I don't think there's a warehouse out there full of awesome "girl movie" scripts that aren't being made becasue of some sexist Hollywood agenda. Hollywood is interested in only one thing- money. To the women who would complain about a lack of female Hollywood blockbusters, I would respond by saing- go write one. I'd be willing to see it if it looks like an interesting movie, but I'm not going to go see it just because it's a "girl movie", and I don't think many other people will, either.

The League said...

To some extent, that's my gut reaction more for calls for better comics for women more than my reaction to how movies are green-lit. Making comics, if you really care and are apssionate, is something you can do entirely on your own. And creators like Lea Hernandez have been doing so for years.

The level of bureaucracy in Tentpole summer features is intense, and I understand its much more difficult to get that movie up on the screen.

However, there are no such barricades for comics. You can write and draw your strip and post it online for next to nothing. You can apply to projects like Dimestore's recent online Comic Book Idol competition, Zuda, etc...

My primary gripe with Dargis's article, though, was that she never clearly articulates what she thinks should be the next summer movie. This was a favorite tactic of my film school instructors: complain about the movie, try to "deconstruct" (which I get and believe in), but then they would always refuse to make any suggestions about what direction a narrative should have taken.

As a rule, nobody likes it when you harp on a problem unless you're also willing to come up with a solution. I understand the role of criticism, but it doesn't do anyone any good if you can't provide examples for the reader to compare and contrast.

J.S. said...

First of all, can we do away with the phrase "Tentpole summer features"? You shouldn't use tentpole unless you're camping or you're a teenage boy explaining why you can't go to the front of the class to write on the chalk board.
I know movies are expensive to make, but scripts aren't expensive to write, and Hollywood is pretty much way short on creative ideas these days and seems to be dying for a few good scripts. (I mean, they're doing sequels to movies that nobody liked in the first place, and most of their "new" ideas come from pre-existing comic books or remakes of old shows)

The more I think about it, though, I guess the more I see your point. What the hell does a "female summer blockbuster" look like, anyway? I'm not sure. Most summer blockbusters tend to be action flicks, which traditionally I guess makes them more "male oriented", but those are just the movies which tend to make piles and piles of money. And who gets to decide what a female movie is, anyway? Maybe the whole differentiation is completely artificial and ridiculous- an exercise in imposing (and therefore reinforcing) traditional notions of gender upon an audience which no longer fits so neatly into these stereotypes.

The League said...

Well, I will quit saying "tentpole" when I am cold and dead.

It's actually pretty descriptive of how these movies hold up the whole studio for the year and let them take chances of unknown or smaller movies.

Anyhow, I often think of how Grandma would watch action movies, TV shows, etc... and that she might have known, intellectually, that those movies may have had guys in mind, it didn't mean she wasn't going to watch Jean-Claude Van Damme save an arena full of hockey fans with his kickboxing skills.

The barriers most exist in the minds of pollsters, bureaucrats and critics. Folks watch what they want to watch, read what they want to read. And assuming everyone else in your gender is going along with you seems a bit silly.

Michael Corley said...

I'm proud to say my wife hates "chick flicks". That doesn't mean she only wants to see the big action blockbuster (though she is as excited to see the next Indy film as I am), but I have the feeling she wouldn't measure up as a "real" woman by these standards.

Carla said...

Great post. And yes, I'm late to this party but there is so much to comment on my head is spinning and I've rewritten my comment twenty times so I'll just say:

Wasn't the Drew Barrymore Charlie's Angles released in the summer to big box office? Doesn't that count as a super chick flick summer blockbuster that the tween girls loved? They made a sequel.

For some reason I think this whole question of women in the movies representing actual women or visa versa is just silly. I will speak for the masses and say that people go to the movies to be entertained. Always. Documentary, narrative, art house, crappy first feature made by a neighbor. If you aren't entertained on some level then it's just not your taste. That's it. Move on. There is no crisis here. Summer is for fun but it's not like you won't be able to find something award worthy or deep to watch. I mean look at all the options one has now to view television, movies, and videos. And in a few months there will be nothing but chick flicks or actors chewing on the scenery trying to win their Oscar.

On a final rambling note, I can't stand Sex in the City. I think it's degrading to men and women and my list as to why is long and boring but overall it's a stupid soap opera dressed up in $2,000 Manolo Blahnik's.

Bring on some Hell Boy II!

The League said...

I agree. I think the number of people who tend to show up for movies for any reason other than entertainment is pretty slim. I do understand looking for substance in your entertainment, but I'd like to see Dargis here telling me what the heck she thinks we need to be watching when you go out for an evening with your pals. I imagine she must pick some real downers everytime her crew wants to go out for a flick.