Thursday, March 12, 2009

Ladies first

Terrible title, but what can you do?

So this was going to be an article, but then it wasn't, so I thought I'd post it here - you know: for the glory.

- I think there's more to say than I manage here, but it was already too long and perhaps a little dry, so I stopped.

For a long time, studios have operated from the theory that more money (in general costs, in movie star salaries, in effects), translates into a higher return at the box office. Nowhere is that idea more roundly dismantled than in the case of the once derided 'chick flick'.

Hollywood, particularly in the deals made for the A-list, presented a flattering mirror to the boom of the last decade. If you were on the up, you could name your fee and in many cases get a percentage of the box office take - the gross, not the net, profit. Stars made millions, hundreds of millions, if you were Tom Cruise and also taking a production credit on the Mission: Impossible series.

The cost of telling the world about your film also rose dramatically during these years. The biggest movie of 2008 was Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, which achieved a worldwide gross of $997 million, putting it in the top 5 all-time box-office successes. Equally awesome was the money spent to bring it to theatres. The production budget was $185 million, on top of which came a reported $150 million marketing budget. All told, it cost $335 million, which is still a fine margin given the $662 million they received in return. This would be a good business, if an expensive one, were every blockbuster to make this kind of return. However, even a cursory look at the charts would disabuse anyone of that position. Speed Racer, made by the Wachowski brothers (of 'The Matrix' fame) cost $120 million to make and a reported $80 million to promote. At the time of writing, it has grossed $93 million worldwide, with DVD sales amounting to $18 million at the end of last year - a long way from breaking even, never mind profit.

Speed Racer may be an obvious casualty, but it was far from alone. The Love Guru, Leatherheads, Semi-Pro, Meet Dave all flopped in 2008, and many other supposed no-brainers struggled to make good on their investments (e.g. The Incredible Hulk, Prince Caspian). We are no longer in the midst of a boom and that has consequences for every business, even showbusiness. This is why insiders have been looking very closely at some of last year's successes. Two films in particular suggest a new (profitable) future for Hollywood and both are chick flicks: Mamma Mia and Twilight.

Mamma Mia, the adaptation of the Abba-themed musical, opened in July 2008 to mixed reviews and huge profits. With a worldwide gross of $573 million, it didn't make as much as Batman, but given that it cost $52 million to make, it was a much safer investment. DVD sales have been buoyant to say the least, with the movie topping charts all around the world. Twilight, released in November 2008 and filmed for the Hollywood equivalent of buttons ($37 million) has to date made $326 million. It's still on release and is likely to hoover up even more before it leaves cinemas.

Both movies have a number of things in common: they have few A-list stars (Meryl Streep, though a critic's darling, has never opened movies like Julia Roberts or Will Smith), low budgets as a consequence of fewer special effects and they appeal to a large part of the cinema-going public that are less attracted to the multicolour racecars of Speed Racer. Originally, movies expressly aimed at women were a cheap way of making money for studios during major sporting tournaments, when a large proportion of their audience chose to sit at home and watch the World Cup or the Superbowl. They cost little and the studios invested a similarly vanishing amount in their promotion. Even the stars who appeared in them were quick to distance themselves - Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, the sine qua non of the chick flick, made their way to 'serious' cinema as soon as possible (with mixed results).

The consequence of that lack of respect for the genre meant that chick flicks never really got expensive. Unlike action movies, Sci-Fi and thrillers, they were never summer 'tentpole' releases, filled with expensive CGI effects. They weren't serious dramas that were lined up for the Oscar race, with all the associated marketing spend that implies. They were the also-rans, no more respected than fantasy films or children's movies. But, as The Lord of The Rings and Pixar did for those, Mamma Mia and Twilight could be about to do for chick flicks. For the cost of one Dark Knight, you could have four or five Twilights, with a combined gross of as much or more than the caped crusader. Not only that, but if one of your chick flicks fail it'll hurt - nobody likes losing money - whereas if a movie that cost as much as the Dark Knight tanks, the whole studio might go under, as anyone who remembers Heaven's Gate can attest.

Movies aimed at women are not necessarily romantic comedies, nor musicals or teen romances, but the successful ones are. Expect to see more films like Twilight, Mamma Mia, Juno and Sex And The City in the next couple of years, as Hollywood grasps the fact that there's a whole other gender with money in their purses. Even Bond, that male comfort blanket, has seen the writing on the wall: it's no accident that the Noughties Ursula Andress is Daniel Craig.

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Welcome to my blog. I'm a freelance writer/journalist/researcher/editor. I write about education and ideas I've had for the Irish Times. I also research, write and edit for writers, publications and websites. Here I put things that tend not to fit anywhere else. Enjoy.

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