Not Your Typical Chick Flick
All-female movie reboots are changing the way Hollywood thinks of women’s pictures.
In 2010, when Angelina Jolie signed on to star in a role originally written for a man—Tom Cruise—in the action blockbuster Salt, she had only two requests: That she could do all her own stunts and that they do no re-writing to accommodate the film’s new heroine.
A year later, what was being described as the female answer to bachelor-party box-office smash, The Hangover, hit theaters. Bridesmaids, with its infamous airplane scene and featuring a then-unknown Melissa McCarthy, would become the yardstick with which all female-led comedies would be measured. Equal parts hilarious and touching, it was an honest, relatable look at friendship that just happened to feature a cast of women. It wasn’t just funny for a female-led film. It was plain funny, and it had the box office numbers to prove it: almost $300 million in ticket sales.
Since then, Hollywood studios have tried to recreate that lightening in a bottle, with mixed results. What’s safe to say, though, is that women are taking the chick flick back. What was once a term used as an insult—Cosmos, romantic mishaps, eventual heavy rotation on the Lifetime network—is now one that audiences expect more from, and studios are beginning to deliver what they now demand: Smart, clever stories with multifaceted characters who just happen to be women. McCarthy’s character in 2016’s all-female reboot of Ghostbusters summed it up pretty well: “All right, girls, let’s loosen his grip.”
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Sure, she may have been referring to a giant poltergeist with way too much power, but then again, many would call that a pretty close analogy when it comes to Hollywood and how it has historically approached which films get the greenlight.
On a Late Show appearance last year, Stephen Colbert asked Cate Blanchett why the all-female reboot of the Ocean’s Eleven collection—which she stars in—is only Ocean’s Eight. She joked: “There’s only eight women working in Hollywood.” And in an interview with Elle magazine, Blanchett’s Ocean’s Eight costar Anne Hathaway reflected on how she rarely gets to experience that feeling of being in familiar territory on a set:
“Hollywood is not a place of equality. I don’t say that with anger or judgment; it’s a statistical fact. And even though I’ve been in some female-centric films, I’ve never been in a film like this. It just kind of makes you aware of the ways you sort of unconsciously change yourself to fit certain scenarios. It’s not better or worse…or right or wrong, but there are certain things you understand about one another because of experiences you have in common…it’s probably easy for men to take that for granted. Just being on a set where I’m the one who possesses that ease is really something. It’s a nice alternative narrative.”
That narrative is especially hard to create in comedies. The all-star cast of the Ghostbusters reboot—which included McCarthy and Bridesmaids costar Kristin Wiig, Leslie Jones, and Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon—learned just how challenging it is to be embraced as funny women. Even before the movie hit theaters, the reactions to news the film existed at all was visceral. Upping the “dislikes” on its YouTube trailer became a game, and the comments were a reminder of how far women still have to go when it comes to gender equality: “Women are just incapable of being funny. What a terrible idea;” “Feminists ruin the world;” “Did this just become a chick flick?”
“It’s not fair that, in 2016, we should be in this situation where this is standard,” Paul Feig, who directed Ghostbusters and Bridesmaids, told the New York Times. “That’s where Hollywood should go, ‘Wow, we are so behind the times.’” He went on to say, “The whole chick flick idea is an excuse for guys not to have to see something. I try with my movies to go, ‘Look how funny these people are.’ Guys were taken to see Bridesmaids, which looked like the ultimate chick flick to them, and they all came out like, ‘Oh my God, that’s so funny.’”
The Ghostbusters cast was equally baffled by the backlash. “It’s the same thing when you go to a comedy club. ‘Are you guys ready for a woman? Are you ready for a unicorn?’ Why is being a woman so surprising?,” Jones wonders in the same interview. “There are two sexes… So, if it’s not a man in a movie, what else was it going to be?”
The comedy sub-genre that is particularly on the rise is the raunchy female comedy. Before Bridesmaids, women’s films were typically kept PG-13: Strategically placed sheets, a little cat fighting, and a mildly potty-mouthed sidekick who, “tells it like it is.” But recently, Hollywood has (slowly) started to acknowledge that women can curse like sailors, drink whiskey, and—gasp—have sexual encounters that take place above the covers. Even rarer still is the R-rated studio comedy directed by a woman. Bridget Jones’s Diary in 2001 was the last one, if we don’t count It’s Complicated, which earned an R because Meryl Streep smokes marijuana in one scene.
Last year’s Rough Night—another film described as the female answer to The Hangover—was directed by Lucia Aniello, who also writes and directs for Comedy Central’s Broad City, a show that’s been described as, “a love story…about two hapless, pot-smoking, sexually experimental, striving, swearing, struggling, inseparable young gal pals running amok on the streets of modern-day New York City.” She, too, wonders why Hollywood hasn’t made more room for films starring and directed by women.
“No one’s saying, ‘Hey Will Ferrell, did you know Kevin Hart also has a movie coming out this year? Is that a trend? What do you think of that? Is your movie the white version of his movie?’” Aniello told Vox. “They don’t have to deal with any of that. They just get to make movies. And sometimes they make money, sometimes they don’t, but guess what? They still get to make another one.”
The issue, or at least one of them, says Peter Newman, is that for generations studios have had an aversion to risk. Newman is the head of New York University’s MBA/MFA Dual Degree program, where students learn both the artistic and business side of filmmaking.
“Studios have been reduced to making really expensive movies,” he explains, “and so they have always had a reliance on previous performance. Because they’ve had little proof of successful women directors, there’s a reluctance to hire female directors—or make ‘women’s’ films—and so it perpetuates. Which is all kinds of silly, because if you want to run the numbers, there are more women going to movies than men.” Despite that fact, only 29 percent of the top 100 films in 2016 featured women in leading roles.
The industry that has successfully changed, he says, is, television.
“For the first time in the industry—which is aware they have a problem—the number [of female roles and directors] is much higher in television than film. TV has figured out how to find the right director, the right cast, and execute properly.” He says shows like Orange Is the New Black and last year’s debut of Glow, a comedy-drama created by Liz Flahive (Homeland, Nurse Jackie) and Carly Mensch (Orange Is the New Black, Weeds), inspired by the eponymous real-life female wrestling circuit, “really work.”
“Television has become testing lab,” he says, “and streaming has created an insatiable appetite for content. Netflix, Amazon, Hulu—it’s no longer the film business, it’s the content business. The success of female creators, especially on streaming services, has afforded the opportunity for women to build up their reputation.”
Hollywood doesn’t allow for that kind of building. It’s is often described as a boy’s club, and, like many industries, opportunity knocks because someone with pull has given it your address. For more women to be successful both in front of the screen and behind it, a culture where more talented women are recognized, and rewarded, needs to be created.
Aniello had the support of Amy Poehler, both in Broad City and Rough Night. “The reason we’re in this position is because some women helped us,” she told Vox. “You gotta try to help people whose voices you know are important.” Similarly, where there is a Melissa McCarthy or a Kristin Wiig, there is often a female SNL newbie or a friend from the improv days.
Of course, opportunity doesn’t always translate into success at the box office. Neither Ghostbusters nor Rough Night experienced the success of Bridesmaids, proving that studios can’t simply fit female characters where male ones once were and expect audiences to flock to the theaters. The reboot trend has proved there is indeed an appetite for female-led films, but success comes down to whether or not those films are smart, imaginative, and well-made.
“It’s overly simplistic thinking on the part of Hollywood, to say, ‘let’s put X females where there were X guys and we’ll have a hit,’” says Newman. “If you make a bad reboot, it irritates the fans of the previous films, and people will point the finger and say, ‘Women are the problem.’” Instead, he says, studios need to focus on fit.
“Take Wonder Woman,” he says, “they got a really good director, Patty Jenkins, who was the right mix. Ava DuVernay was chosen to direct A Wrinkle in Time—yes, she’s a woman of color making a big franchise movie, but it’s because she’s a good match and has made good movies.”
Last summer’s Girl’s Trip was a good movie—great, critics almost unanimously said—that also happened to feature a female-led cast, including Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett Smith. Inspired by movie plots centered around guys having crazy adventures and behaving badly together, producer Will Packer (Straight Outta Compton) wanted to make a version that not only starred women, but black women. He also knew it had to be good.
“You’re baking the cake and all the ingredients have to be just right or it falls flat,” he told the LA Times. “We’re in a time when comedies have not been working in the theatrical marketplace. This one happens to be fronted by four black women, but it’s original storytelling and has universal themes.”
If that formula translates into revenue for Hollywood studios, history dictates we’ll see more films like it.
“A lot of the stuff I write is really diverse in terms of the characters’ races and backgrounds, but I feel like the themes and story lines are very relatable,” Girl’s Trip writer Tracy Oliver told Creative Screenwriting. “As a black woman I’m totally different to Bradley Cooper, but I can still find those movies relatable and fun… [Girl’s Trip] has transcended and reached people of all different colors and backgrounds. I hope people can move past their biases and just say, ‘I want to go see a fun movie tonight,’ and forget about the fact they don’t look like the people on screen.”
Spending a Saturday night in a dark theater to escape reality for a couple hours? That’s something everyone can relate to.
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