December 22, 1995 in Seven

Actresses Proving They Wield Power At Box Office

Elaine Dutka Los Angeles Times
 

The theme of the 1993 Oscar ceremonies was “The Year of the Woman.”

Given the paucity of substantive roles for actresses, insiders wondered, “Which woman?”

The pickings were nearly as slim in 1994, when Holly Hunter won the top award for “The Piano.” Noting that she and Emma Thompson had been nominated in both the best actress and best supporting actress categories, Hunter suggested that to cover all bases, the academy had had to resort to using Hamburger Helper.

And the picture wasn’t much brighter earlier this year when Jessica Lange beat out yet another lackluster field with her performance in the scarcely seen “Blue Sky.”

Few would have forecast that later in the year, actresses would emerge as a critical force, distinguishing themselves in a growing number of substantive roles and beginning to demonstrate potent box-office appeal.

Countering the conventional wisdom that actresses can’t fill the seats on that do-or-die first weekend, Sandra Bullock, Michelle Pfeiffer and Julia Roberts carried “The Net,” “Dangerous Minds” and “Something to Talk About,” respectively, to wide-ranging audiences this past summer.

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Emma Thompson, stars of the recently released “Georgia” and “Sense and Sensibility,” are likely favorites in a suddenly jammed Oscar race. Fox’s “Waiting to Exhale,” the story of four black women in Phoenix, and MGM’s “Cutthroat Island,” starring Geena Davis as a pirate, open today.

“Women are a big audience, and you can market to them if the product is good,” says Tom Pollock, vice chairman of MCA Inc., whose Universal Pictures released the multigenerational “How to Make an American Quilt” this fall. “Studios are accepting the fact that women and women’s subjects have opened films. … Hollywood takes note of numbers.”

But progress is predicated on profits, and the results thus far have been erratic.

“The Scarlet Letter,” with Demi Moore; “To Die For,” starring Nicole Kidman as a homicidal Barbara Walters wannabe; “American Quilt”; and the Warner Bros. thriller “Copycat,” featuring Sigourney Weaver and, in a role originally written for a man, Holly Hunter, failed to fulfill expectations.

Just as the failure of 1990’s “Stella” led then-Walt Disney Studios Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg to steer clear of female-themed movies, the fate of the current spate of films may have far-reaching implications on what gets made down the road.

“Unless these films do well, female-driven movies will be viewed as a once-a-year-and-we-already-have-one genre rather than as a legitimate source of revenue,” says Midge Sanford, a producer of “American Quilt.”

“Movies like ‘Little Women’ and ‘Enchanted April’ had to take in some money before we got the green light.”

It’s still a far cry from the 1940s, when “the majority of films were dominated by female stars and women’s stories,” says Moore, who also starred in and produced New Line’s female coming-of-age story “Now and Then.”

The women’s audience always has been there, maintains screenwriter Robin Swicord (“Little Women”.) But whenever she’d point out that people showed up for “Terms of Endearment,” studio executives would call it a “fluke.”

“In fact, it was women who made action adventures so big and ‘Last of the Mohicans’ a hit,” she says. “We all came out of the house to see Daniel Day-Lewis running half-naked through the woods and a heroine who wasn’t an object. Women’s movies don’t have to be female-themed. … They just have to give us something we like.”

Industry observers agree that the female component in the moviegoing marketplace extends far beyond so-called “chick flicks.”

“The Bridges of Madison County” and “Legends of the Fall” did well by appealing to both men and women. And, according to exit polls, 55 percent of the opening weekend crowd for “Apollo 13” was female.

“The conventional wisdom is that women make the decision about which movies to go to, and men have veto power,” says Paula Silver, a marketing consultant for Walt Disney Studios and former president of marketing at Columbia Pictures. “If it looks really sappy, women go with their girlfriends. But if a story is compelling, the word-of-mouth factor makes it OK for men to turn out.”

While studios are responding to women’s numbers and pocketbooks, Fox 2000 Pictures President Laura Ziskin says, most lack an awareness of what women really want.

“As a producer, I know that my first audience to sell to is white middle-aged males who decide which movies get made,” she says. “They’re a very homogeneous group with a different sensibility and a reluctance to spend a lot on movies catering to women.

“I don’t view ‘To Die For’ as a ‘women’s picture,’ but we had to make it at a price well below the norm.”

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