Romcoms used to be known as “chick flicks,” and while the name isn’t entirely accurate (exhibit A: me), there’s something to it: Women tended to buy more tickets to these movies than men. But now that Hollywood has concluded that its only remaining competitive advantage is spectacle, it’s all but ceded the fairer sex to cable TV. The only demographic adrenalized enough to reliably show up for this weekend’s latest extravaganza is men aged 18-24, or so the thinking goes, and so the industry keeps churning out dude bait. Even romantic comedies themselves have become more male-centric over the last dozen years, with the Nora Ephrons and Nancy Meyerses of the world giving way to “bromance” auteurs such as Judd Apatow (The 40-Year Old Virgin) and Jason Segel (I Love You, Man).
Men don't like romantic comedies -- or if they do, they can't admit it. A marketing executive at a major studio says that, in development meetings, there's a tacit agreement that a male "no" carries more weight than a female "yes." Why should studios risk selling guys on a romantic comedy when they can rely on guys selling their girlfriends on Transformers?
As the current wisdom goes: Men are stubborn; women are flexible. "It's the 'Will you hold my purse?' theory," Feig explains. "A guy's in a store with his wife or girlfriend and she asks him to hold her purse, it's, like, Kryptonite or something. They have to hold it so that no one around them thinks it's theirs. But if a guy says to his wife or girlfriend, 'Can you hold my backpack?' she's like, 'Sure.' She doesn't give a shit. I think Hollywood banks on that."
Hollywood didn't always. In fact, Walt Disney trumpeted the opposite. "Women are the best judges of anything we turn out. Their taste is very important," he wrote in 1959. "They are the theatergoers, they are the ones who drag the men in. If the women like it, to heck with the men." That all has changed.
Except it hasn't. Women continue to buy 51 percent of all movie tickets, a figure that becomes even more impressive when you calculate post-Walt Hollywood's wan efforts to lure them into theaters.
"Certainly not 51 percent of movies are centered on women," says writer-director-producer Nancy Meyers (It's Complicated, Something's Gotta Give). In fact, in 2011, only one in 10 films starred a female protagonist. Not even Katniss Everdeen driving The Hunger Games franchise seems likely to balance the odds in females' favor.
"But you know what they say: 'Women will go to movies about men, yet men may not go to movies about women,'" Meyers adds. "So as long as that theory prevails, I suppose no one feels the need to change the status quo."
But studios should. Forget squishy ideals of feminism and fair play. Studios should make female-driven films for a mercenary reason: They're leaving cash on the table.
Think of the lessons in Meyers's 2001 flick What Women Want, which grossed more than $374 million worldwide. First, that a film obsessed with understanding the female brain can become the second-highest-grossing romantic comedy of all time. As for the second, the plot couldn't make it any clearer. Mel Gibson plays a marketer who specializes in testosterone-slick ads starring cool dudes and chicks in bikinis. Selling to men has made his company good money, but his boss, Alan Alda, suspects it could make even more. So instead of promoting Gibson, Alda hires Helen Hunt, who lectures the boardroom about the peril of ignoring the female dollar.
"When Sears decided to go after women in their advertising and said, 'Come see the softer side of Sears,' their revenues went up 30 percent," Hunt tells them. "We can't afford not to have a piece of a $40 billion pie."
Why does Hollywood think it can afford the loss? The only explanation is industrywide amnesia. When a female-driven film does well -- think Bridesmaids -- it's greeted as an unexpected success. But it should be no surprise that the predominantly female theatrical audience bought tickets to a great, female-centered comedy.
And while the suits swore they'd learn from its example, the projected Bridesmaids bounce in female-driven comedies hasn't happened. In the three years since it came out, only one other major female comedy has been released: last year's Sandra Bullock-Melissa McCarthy flick The Heat . . . also directed by Paul Feig. It, too, was a hit.
Hollywood execs applaud Feig's successful formula, but they don't get the message. Instead of greenlighting more female comedies, they've begged Feig to make a movie about men.
"I've been lectured so many times by producers and people in power, 'You don't want to get pigeonholed in the whole woman thing,'" Feig chuckles. "Do I want to get pigeonholed in the menthing? I want to get pigeonholed in the people thing!"
JC Spink, a partner in the management and production company BenderSpink, which has executive produced romantic comedies like Monster-in-Law and Just Friends, notes that the rom-com genre has been damaged by studios’ desire to make every film appeal to everyone. “The studios have gone from aiming for one or two quadrants — younger women and older women — to three or four,” says Spink. Hence: the proliferation of the Apatow brand to bring in men; centering rom-coms around boorish, Tucker Max–ish guys (The Ugly Truth); or braiding romances with other genres like action or sci-fi (This Means War; The Adjustment Bureau). “But the effect, I think, is that the movie actually becomes less appealing to women,” says Spink.
In keeping with that theme, Alan Rickman's secretary is just constantly pointing at her vagina and licking her own face, like she's a porn actress who forgot she was doing a mainstream movie. Or, more accurately, like the character is a porn actress who forgot she was working in a real office. I don't mean that there's anything wrong with porn actresses, or that the actress who plays Alan Rickman's secretary is anything but lovely here, I mean that LOVE ACTUALLY SEES NO PROBLEM WITH TREATING ITS FEMALE CHARACTERS LIKE GIANT BIPEDAL VAGINAS IN SWEATER VESTS.
(Also, she's still looking for a venue for the holiday party and it's only three weeks before Christmas!?!?! This is why you shouldn't hire any non-sentient organ to do clerical work. No matter how sexy it is.)
Anyway, the flirtation is a problem because Alan Rickman is married to Emma Thompson, but don't worry—she wears foundation garments and talks too much (see above) and therefore deserves to die alone with nothing but Joni Mitchell for comfort.
Laura Linney, the only other female character with some semblance of an inner life, meets a similar fate.
This is a movie made for women by a man.
But I would suggest that it isn't only dude-bro culture but also a good helping of nerd culture, as analyzed in this excellent piece Your Princess is in Another Castle: Misogyny, Entitlement and Nerds.