For those who follow that sort of thing, this weekend was one of the more interesting in a while at the domestic box office. There were four films that broke the $25 million barrier in the same weekend, a first in history, for instance. There was the unusually precipitious drop for "Brave," a worrying sign for the once-untouchable animation factory Pixar. There was the continually impressive expansion for "Moonrise Kingdom."
But the most interesting tidbit came in the very upper reaches of the chart, with two fairly inexpensive, R-rated films: Seth MacFarlane's "Ted," made for around $50 million, about the same amount as it took across three days in the U.S, and Steven Soderbergh's "Magic Mike," picked up Warner Bros for a mere $7 million in what's looking like the bargain of the year, took just shy of $40 million. Together, they serve as further demonstrations of what we said over a year ago — that despite studios shying away from mid-budget movies for grown-ups, they're often smarter investments than tentpoles (something born up by films like "Safe House," "Think Like A Man," and "Contraband" all exceeding box office expectations earlier in the year).
But it's "Magic Mike" we particularly want to talk about, because it's another example of something that's become increasingly clear of late. Ever since "Star Wars," really, studios have been banking that young men between the ages of 13-25 (roughly) is where the money is, and the evidence has more than backed that up over the last 35 years, with superheroes and effects driven tentpoles being consistently the biggest moneymakers. This year, however, "The Avengers" aside (and more on that below), that hasn't really been borne out, with many of the films targeted specifically at that demographic underperforming. Indeed, of the year's top fifteen grossers so far only three — "The Avengers," "Men In Black 3" and "Wrath Of The Titans" were targeted directly to that demographic (one could arguably include "21 Jump Street," "Ted" and "Prometheus," except that all three carried R-ratings).
What's more, even the ones that did bring in grosses have underperformed. Despite a decade of inflation and a 3D subsidy, "MIB3" is the lowest-grossing film of the franchise by $20 million; although it'll close the gap before its run ends. 'Titans' took half of what its 2010 predecessor made. "Battleship" and "John Carter" are already famous disasters. Even a highly profitable film like "Chronicle" was a sleeper hit, but barely passed $60 million — a few years ago, it might have made much more.
It's not hard to come up with reasons why teen boys may not be coming to the movies in the droves they once did — video games, piracy, rising prices, the shittiness of the product. We covered some of this last time. But what's perhaps more interesting is that the audience that seems to be stepping in. The way-above-expectations opening of "Magic Mike" is only the latest in a series of examples of female audiences — and in particular, older female audiences — being arguably more reliable than young men in terms of actually turning out at the box office .
Of course, women have been behind plenty of box office smashes in history; we're pretty sure thirteen year old boys weren't behind the audience of "Gone With The Wind," which, adjusted for inflation, is the biggest film in history. "Titanic" was another similar success. But still these kind of films remained the outliers, and the failures of films like "Catwoman" and "Aeon Flux" led to some studio executive types declaring that any film that wasn't a rom-com led by a woman was pretty much doomed to failure.
Last year was full of the usual sequels and superhero fare, but it was worth noting that of the three original films in the top 20 domestic grossers, two — "The Help" and "Bridesmaids," which each took a whopping $170 million — were aimed at women (animation "Rio" was the third). So far this year, "The Vow" and "Think Like A Man" (which connected massively with another underserved demographic, African-American audiences) have been big hits, and "Magic Mike," while frontloaded, should join them in the upper reaches of the yearly chart, and films like "Hope Springs" (which should capitalize on the same audience that made "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" an astonishing sleeper hit), "Pitch Perfect," "Les Miserables," "The Great Gatsby" and "The Guilt Trip" all have strong chances of joining them.
And as if to prove those executives all those years ago deeply wrong, four of the biggest action-adventure films of the year — "Brave," "Snow White & The Huntsman," "Prometheus" and the massive "The Hunger Games" — featured strong, impressive female leads. Even "The Avengers" featured a well-rounded female character, and it converted into 40% of the audience on opening weekend being women. Assuming that carried across the film's entire run, that translates into something like $240 million worth of ticket sold. And all this while films like "Battleship" and "John Carter" have tanked.
And this week's "The Amazing Spider-Man" is a good indication of where things might be headed. Early reports when it was announced that the film was going to be rebooted were that Sony were aiming for a "Twilight" style take, and that's actually kind of borne out by Marc Webb's film, which, as our review said, fares much better with the romance than it does with the action. The comic book geeks haven't been responding especially well to the film, but anecdotally, we know that women have been more impressed. We're not sure we'd go quite as far as to say that it's the first superhero film aimed at women (marketing has been chasing kids — and overgrown kids — more), but it does feel like that's the film that Webb set out to make.
It would be nice if a single one of the female-driven hits was actually directed by a woman ("Brave" was co-helmed by Brenda Chapman, but she was fired halfway through the shoot), but we'll take the baby steps for now. And while the myth that female-driven event movies are box office poison has finally been put to bed, it should be noted that audiences won't tolerate being condescended to (please see the lukewarm reception to "What To Expect When You're Expecting" — though, much of that marketing seemed overly focused on getting dudes in the theater, which also may have been an issue). And we increasingly feel that the evidence is there that if studios want to sleep a little better at night, it's worth them easing off the relentless targeting of teenage boys, and start courting the ladies. But what do you think? Is this summer merely an oddity? Are we reading too much into this all? Weigh in in the comments section.