Is the Problem With 'The Women' or the Chick Flick?

Where "SATC" and "Mamma Mia!" triumphed, "The Women" fell flat.

BySheila Marikar
September 15, 2008, 7:42 PM

Sept. 16, 2008 — -- Perhaps in politics, it's never been better. But at the theater, the time just isn't right for "The Women."

Coming on the heels of the chick flick's most successful summer ever -- "Sex and the City" kicked it off by bringing in a record-breaking $57 million when it hit theaters in May, "Mamma Mia" followed that with a $27 million opening in July -- "The Women" had a lot to live up to.

Its cast, a who's-who of chick flicks past and present including Meg Ryan, Annette Benning, Jada Pinkett Smith and Eva Mendes, belongs at the top of the box office.

But Diane English's remake of the 1939 comedy about infidelity, divorce and revenge fell over the weekend, limping to fourth place with a $10.1 million opening. So was audiences' affection for the chick flick this year merely a summer fling, or was something wrong with "The Women?"

According to English, figuring how to make money off "The Women," a project that was in development for years before it hit the big screen, was an issue from the beginning.

"We struggled to get this movie made. The financing was really hard to come by because we had an all female cast and we didn't have a television series that preceded us," she said, noting that while "Sex and the City" had a whopping $65 million budget, "The Women" had to make do with $16.5 million.

"The whole reason for making this movie was not only to put women up on the screen, where they often aren't, but also to bring them into the theaters because the conventional wisdom is, women over 25 don't go to the movies," English said. "We really want this to become a trend and not just a fluke."

Beyond just updating a previously told story, upping Hollywood's respect for female-oriented movies seemed be a strong motivation for English in making the film, one echoed by her cast.

"Women in the industry have to start getting behind the scenes and we have to start pushing and finding that talent of women that are out there. We can't expect men to do it. We've got to do it. We have to take more responsibility for getting in the forefront," said Pinkett Smith, who plays the lesbian confidant of Ryan's main character. "Let's make the point that women are marketable, that we can open movies. Then let's diversify."

But apparently, diversifying to the degree that not one man appears on screen during the entire film (English noted that even the dogs are bitches) was too much for audiences to handle, especially on a weekend when Hollywood's most powerful pair of heartthrobs, Brad Pitt and George Clooney, also put out a new movie. (Their screwball spy comedy, "Burn After Reading," opened at No. 1 with an estimated $19.4 million; Tyler Perry's "The Family That Preys" scored No. 2; Robert De Niro and Al Pacino's latest, "Righteous Kill," scored No. 3.)

By cutting males out of the picture, it seems, English cut them out of the theater as well.

"'The Women' had a lot of star power but most of its appeal was in one quadrant: Women over 25," said Gitesh Pandya, editor of box-office analysis Web site "Men have to be dragged kicking and screaming to go into that movie. You lose 50 percent of your audience off the bat."

"When you look at some of the most successful romantic comedies, they're ones with men in the lead roles: 'Hitch,' 'What Women Want.' Even 'Pretty Woman' at the time was more of a Richard Gere film with this relatively unknown actress named Julia Roberts," Pandya added.

On top of that, critics panned "The Women" long before it hit theaters. USA Today called it "Defanged and drippy ... watered-down, sappy and earnest." said it's "just like 'Sex and the City' but without the sex" and concluded, "Let the record show ... that a movie written by, directed by and starring women can suck just as mightily as anything any bunch of men could produce."

Less-than-stellar reviews didn't hurt "Sex and the City," nor did they bog down "Mamma Mia!" or "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2," the "female friendly" offering of late summer. But what all those movies had in common were big brand names to back them up, which, in conjunction with appealing to both the sexes, ultimately may be the most important factor in whether movie studios see chick flicks as revenue drivers going forward.

"Sex and the City" was able to parlay its footing in TV into a huge marketing campaign, complete with cocktails, tours and DVD editions timed to the release of the movie. Building buzz around a remake of a Depression-era film without any male leads is decidedly more difficult.

"As with big blockbusters like 'Harry Potter' and 'Spiderman,' it's all about the name," Pandya said. "If someone made a movie based on the characters of 'Desperate Housewives,' that would be huge. There's a lot of faith in the future for female oriented films, and when you're able to have appeal to men and women, that's when it really works. Otherwise you'd better have a damn good brand."

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