Look around at the audiences pouring into theaters to see "Rain Man," Hollywood's hottest film: If MGM/UA's research results are on target, most of them will be women and a lot of those women will be over 25.
For years, a Hollywood rule of thumb has held that blockbuster movies need to draw most of their audience from the young male crowd--teens who bring along dates or groups of friends, and consider repeat viewings as a kind of pubescent badge of honor. The success of such hits as "Jaws," "Star Wars" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" can be traced directly to men under 25, said Ed Mintz, president of the research firm CinemaScore. "Younger males generate the biggest films."
But with the rapid success of "Rain Man," as well as female favorites like Disney/Touchstone's "Three Men and a Baby," Hollywood studios in the late 1980s are rediscovering the potential of female moviegoers.
"The majority (of 'Rain Man's' audience) were and continue to be female," said Greg Morrison, MGM/UA's outgoing marketing president. "The film is being driven by this solid core; there's no question about it. Obviously, Tom Cruise accounts for a lot of it."
"Rain Man" opened to packed houses during the Christmas holidays--typically a better time for action and comedy films aimed at young men--and quickly steam-rolled past its competition. The film will pass the $100- million mark this weekend, and Mintz predicts it will gross at least $150 million at U.S. theaters alone.
Ironically, while MGM/UA officials knew that Cruise and co-star Dustin Hoffman would appeal to women, they would have preferred "Rain Man" to draw more men.
"As you open a movie, you would like very much to have the interest reversed, with 60% men and 40% women, because that's the standard," Morrison said. "You won't find a lot of mega-hits that are female-driven."
But "Rain Man" is fast becoming just that. Three separate MGM/UA research studies found that the film's average audience was 55% female and 45% male, Morrison said. Two-thirds of the audience were over 25, another departure for a hit movie.
MGM/UA, like all Hollywood studios, tracks audiences to gauge the effectiveness of its marketing campaigns. In the case of "Rain Man," the studio's research included exit polls in eight cities on opening night, said Morrison, with follow-up surveys the weeks after it opened.
What surprised Morrison was "Rain Man's" fast start. Historically, he said, older women are not as effective as young men in generating word of mouth for a film. "Rain Man's" success, he said, suggests that this is changing.
"Rain Man" is not the first--nor is it likely to be the last--hit generated by women in the late 1980s. Mintz surveyed the initial audiences who attended "Three Men and a Baby" when it opened in late 1987 and found that 61% were female. When asked to grade the movie according to how much she liked it, the average woman gave the film an A, while men gave it only a B-plus. No matter: "Three Men and a Baby" went on to gross more than $167 million at theaters in this country alone.
Disney/Touchstone struck gold with the female audience again last summer by putting Tom Cruise in "Cocktail." According to CinemaScore, females accounted for a huge 69% of "Cocktail's" audience share when it opened, and they scored it higher than did men. With box-office receipts above $77 million, "Cocktail" was one of last year's top earners.
The box-office performance of these films isn't at the levels of such male-driven hits as "E.T." ($327 million in its first release); "Star Wars" ($287 million in the first release), or its sequel, "Return of the Jedi," ($252 million). But they are among the highest earners in the market today.
Other hit films popular with women include "Working Girl," (in which 54% of its initial audience were female, according to CinemaScore); "Big" (56% female), and " 'Crocodile' Dundee II" (54% female). Paramount expects the initial audiences on "Cousins," (See review on Page 1) a romantic comedy opening this weekend, to be largely female, though the studio hopes that will even out over time.
"The good news is that women and young girls love the movies," said Sidney Ganis, president of Paramount's motion picture group. But, he cautioned: "Make no mistake about it, there are still real strong male moviegoing demographics."
Independent producer Jere Henshaw of Apollo Pictures, said he noticed the potential of female audiences during his regular rounds to neighborhood theaters a few years ago, when he began to notice groups of teen-age girls and young women waiting in line for movies at shopping malls. The movement of theaters from urban centers--which became increasingly crime-ridden in the 1960s and 1970s--to shopping malls "has made young girls and older women feel as if they can safely go to the movies without a date or husband," Henshaw reasons.
The rise of shopping-mall theaters enables Hollywood to recapture a segment of the female audience that was lost when mothers stopped taking their children to afternoon matinees in the 1960s--a result of rising divorce rates, women entering the work force and an increase in crime, said Henshaw, a 30-year veteran in Hollywood.
Moreover, Henshaw said, most of the stores surrounding theaters in shopping malls are oriented toward women.
"You walk down any shopping mall in America," Henshaw said, "and they're all designed to get women to spend money."
With that audience in mind, Henshaw produced a low-budget feature in 1987, a teen love story called "Can't Buy Me Love," and convinced Disney to distribute it. The film went on to become a moderate hit at the box office, grossing nearly $32 million--recouping many times the film's production costs.