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Box-Office Theory Sinks With 'Titanic'

Commentary: Disaster epic, along with meteoric showing of 'Deep Impact,' shows it's no longer true that a film has to appeal to young males to be a smash.

June 26, 1998|TOM STEMPEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It is the opening day of "Mulan" in a theater in Santa Monica. Mulan, the Chinese girl, has dressed as a man to take her father's place in the Imperial Army. After first failing basic training, she has come back and outperformed the men. As the sequence comes to its climax, a kid's voice in the row behind me says, "Coooool."

Which, of course, will ultimately help you understand why Hollywood was so irritated when "Deep Impact" grossed $41.2 million its first weekend a month before.

Some of the reasons for the irritation were obvious, but at least one was not, and it suggests the degree to which Hollywood, and those who write about it, are in deep denial about what may be one of the most significant changes taking place in the industry in 20 years.

First, the obvious reasons. Sony was irritated because if "Deep Impact" turned out to be the hit its opening suggested, it could affect Sony's summer biggie, "Godzilla," which opened a week and a half after "Impact." Disney was irritated because if "Impact" was a hit then it might cut into Disney's Touchstone comet-hits-the-Earth picture, "Armageddon." Plus, the industry as a whole had pretty much decided, based on the tracking polls done before "Deep Impact's" release, that the opening weekend's gross would be about $30 million, and it is always irritating when their "scientific" surveys go wrong.

To understand the less obvious reason, it is necessary to discuss--if you can stand to spend another five minutes reading about it--"Titanic." Leonard Klady, doing a summing-up of the winter box-office season in Weekly Variety (April 13-19), lists the reasons the industry had thought that it might not be a blockbuster: "Though anticipated as a top holiday grosser, its running time, period setting and lack of big stars had prognosticators citing a $200-million ceiling prior to opening."

What was he failing to mention? If you had your windows open that day last December when James Cameron said he had made a "$200-million chick flick," you could have heard Hollywood cringing. "Chick flicks" are not supposed to be blockbusters, and Hollywood was afraid Cameron was dooming his own film.

That idea--that films with large female audiences cannot make that much money--has affected how the film was written about. Amy Wallace, writing about the film's audiences in The Times (Feb. 10), says the film is "a chick flick with muscle," and then adds, in a curious piece of phrasing, that exit polls show "that 40% of viewers are male." Which means that, with the exception of the odd trans-gendered viewer, approximately 60% of the audience is female. If the exit polling were done later in the film's run, the percentage would probably have been higher. Which means that the highest-grossing film of all time was put at the top of the list by female filmgoers.

This is not supposed to happen. For 20 years, since the first "Star Wars" film, the basic industry assumption has been that to be a blockbuster hit, a film has to appeal predominantly to young males age 12 to 25. This was true of the "Star Wars" films, the "Indiana Jones" films, "Independence Day," "Men in Black" and many others. It is what the makers of "Godzilla" and "Armageddon" have been counting on, but it may no longer be true. Young men are apparently spending more time at video games, computers and Internet porn, and less time at the movies. One of the most recent demonstrations of this was "Can't Hardly Wait," a boys-and-girls teen comedy starring Jennifer Love Hewitt, grossing $8 million its opening weekend, while the opening the same weekend of "Dirty Work," a crude boy's pranks comedy, earned only $3.6 million, at 10% fewer theaters.

*

Hollywood has, over the last 10 years, completely unconsciously and unintentionally, created a new audience, or rather regained an old audience. In the 1930s and '40s, the heads of the studios made films for everybody, including women. Beginning with "Driving Miss Daisy" in 1989, which brought in nearly $100 million in domestic film rentals (the money paid from the theaters to the distributors; the following figures on film grosses are from Weekly Variety, which shifted from reporting rentals to box-office figures about 1993), many films have attracted larger-than-expected audiences among women.

My Dec. 18, 1995, Counterpunch essay in The Times pointed out that Hollywood and the people writing about it should no longer be surprised at the large opening grosses of films by and about women. A week after that essay appeared, "Waiting to Exhale" opened to industry "surprise" at its grosses. So much for my influence on Hollywood thinking.

Most of these so-called "women's" films had been turned down, or at least resisted, at the proposed project level by studio executives. Every studio in town turned down "Driving Miss Daisy" before it was financed independently, and it took producer Amy Pascal 12 years of trying to get "Little Women" made.

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