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WORD OF MOUTH

A 'Proposal' they won't refuse?

Female-friendly films can prosper during the male-dominated summer season.

June 18, 2009|John Horn

There's no doubt that next Wednesday's "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" will be among the year's biggest blockbusters, on track to record one of the best opening weekends ever. But when the fighting machines take a breather, Warner Bros. is betting the battlebots won't have conquered one critical audience segment: women.

In releasing its kid-with-cancer tear-jerker "My Sister's Keeper" directly opposite the "Transformers" sequel, Warner Bros. is following a summer counterprogramming strategy that has yielded a number of female-driven hits -- "Mamma Mia!," "Sex and the City" and "The Devil Wears Prada" at the top of the charts -- and a handful of summer chick flick underachievers, including "Made of Honor" and "License to Wed."

School's-out movie slates historically lean heavily toward young men, and this year is no exception. Most of the summer's highest-profile releases -- "Star Trek," "Terminator Salvation," "G.I. Joe" and the "Transformers" sequel -- live and die on the attendance from people who think Slim Jims and beer constitute a food group. But with so much testosterone spilling out of the multiplex, several distributors believe now is the time to tilt the scales back toward women.

This coming weekend, Disney will unveil its Sandra Bullock-Ryan Reynolds romantic comedy "The Proposal," having moved the film up from a tentative fall date (and then away from "The Hangover") into the middle of the summer fray. Audience tracking surveys suggest the film could bring Bullock one of her best openings ever (none of her previous movies has grossed more than $18 million in its premiere weekend), and "The Proposal" appears certain to hammer the other new wide release, "Year One" (which is looking more like "Land of the Lost II").

A week later, "My Sister's Keeper," an adaptation of the bestselling Jodi Picoult novel starring Cameron Diaz and Jason Patric, will go toe-to-toe with the second DreamWorks-Paramount "Transformers" film (the action sequel opens on Wednesday, while "My Sister's Keeper" premieres two days later, on June 26). And in one of the more interesting summer showdowns, Sony's Meryl Streep and Amy Adams food-filled romance "Julie & Julia" will hit theaters the same weekend as Paramount's militaristic shoot-'em-up "G.I. Joe."

"By Aug. 7, moms will have taken their kids to a lot of shows over the summer," says Jeff Blake, vice chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, "and it's time for them to ask, 'What about me?' It's tangible that people want something else."

The studios hold competing theories over whether a surfeit of male-oriented movies helps drum up even greater interest in films for women. One camp says good movies will work regardless of what the competitive landscape looks like, while the other maintains that moviegoers (like nature) abhor a vacuum, that too many macho movies make romance, comedy and sobbing even more desirable.

Thrive time

The studios agree, though, that if a female-friendly title has any playability, summer can help maximize its returns because movies can play for more weeks than in other parts of the year, when time off is harder to come by.

That's been proved by several recent hits that emerged from under the thumb of male-powered blockbusters.

Last year, "Mamma Mia!" premiered directly opposite "The Dark Knight," and while the latter film is the No. 2 highest-grosser of all time with domestic sales of $533.3 million, Streep's ABBA musical grossed $144.1 million. Two summers earlier, Streep's "The Devil Wears Prada" came out against "Superman Returns," and "Prada" (domestic gross: $124.7 million) more than held its own against the Man of Steel's homecoming ($200.1 million).

But last summer, Sony underestimated the mass appeal of "Iron Man," and Sony's "Made of Honor" didn't get to $50 million. A year earlier, Warner Bros. scheduled its romantic comedy "License to Wed" opposite the first "Transformers," and the Mandy Moore marriage movie also failed to reach the $50-million mark.

Sue Kroll, the worldwide marketing chief at Warner Bros., believes that part of what will set "My Sister's Keeper" apart is that there has been so little specifically for female ticket buyers this summer. "I think it's clearly an alternative," she says.

Media strategies

To help build interest in the film, the studio has been buying advertising in female-driven Web sites (ivillage.com, oxygen.com) and television shows ("Oprah," "Extreme Home Makeover") and pushing the film's director, "The Notebook's" Nick Cassavetes. "That movie for females was a very big deal," Kroll says of Cassavetes' 2004 melodrama.

Disney is following a similar media strategy for "The Proposal," and also held more than 800 sneak previews for the film, hoping the studio's answer to free word-of-mouth screenings will establish the movie as more than a chick flick but a date movie. Nearly 80% of the sneak ticket buyers were couples, Disney domestic distribution head Chuck Viane says.

"This movie is everything you think it is and more," Viane says of the movie by "27 Dresses" director Anne Fletcher. "And guys also want something where they can laugh and lose it for a while."

When Sony looked at a rough cut of director Nora Ephron's "Julie & Julia," it moved the film from April into August, convinced it would gross more money in the summer.

"There was a lot of internal discussion about when we would date it," Blake says. "But it came down to, 'When are the most people going to see and enjoy the movie?' "

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john.horn@latimes.com

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