- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Viewers often know just from a movie’s trailer whether it’s going to be a stinker - and wonder why studio executives can’t figure that out as well.

But it seems that Hollywood insiders can’t tell when they have a hit on their hands, either.

Warner Bros. passed on making “Sex and the City: The Movie,” ending up with the film only when New Line Cinema was folded into the company’s corporate parent. To many, it didn’t seem like that daft a decision - tracking surveys had predicted that the film, made for $65 million, would earn just $25 million its opening weekend.

“Sex and the City” made $56.8 million this weekend. With a kick of a Manolo Blahnik-ed high heel, it pushed what looked like summer’s biggest blockbuster out of the top spot. “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” after an opening weekend of $127 million, made just $44.7 million when it went up against “Sex” in its second.

“Hollywood gurus were stunned,” proclaimed the Internet Movie Database’s Studio Briefing. “It is kind of mind-boggling,” Sarah Jessica Parker, the movie’s star and producer, told the New York Times over the weekend.

“It did surprise a lot of people by knocking ‘Indiana Jones’ to second place,” says Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box-office tracking firm Media by Numbers. “Never underestimate the power and the clout of women at the box office.”

That’s not the demographic Hollywood usually targets in the summer, though. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, studios roll out flick after flick aimed at young men. Last year, the blockbusters included “Spider-Man 3,” “Transformers” and “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.” This year, studios are giving us the recently released “Iron Man” and the upcoming “The Dark Knight” and “The Incredible Hulk.”

The only superhero in “Sex and the City” might be a push-up bra or a pair of Spanx. The studio says the opening-night crowd was estimated to be 85 percent female, although that went down to about 75 percent during the rest of the weekend.

“Just about any woman you would talk to between the ages of 15 and 55 was excited to see this movie. This was for women what Grand Theft Auto IV was for guys,” Mr. Dergarabedian said, referring to the wildly popular video game. “It was destined to be this blockbuster.”

Few seemed to realize that, though. When I talked to writer-director Michael Patrick King a few weeks ago, he noted that this is a film that breaks the rules. Romantic comedies don’t tend to play much past the 90-minute mark; “Sex and the City” is 2 hours and 15 minutes long. New Line was willing to take a chance, he said, because it had a successful track record with three long-running blockbusters - the “Lord of the Rings” movies.

“It could have been three hours, four hours, and women would have still seen it,” Mr. Dergarabedian says with a laugh.

R-rated movies don’t tend to be the biggest blockbusters, either, because their possible audience is automatically smaller. “Sex,” though,” had the fifth-best opening for an R-rated movie ever. In fact, it was that older crowd that made the movie a hit. On opening night, 80 percent of ticket buyers were older than 25.

Most summer movies are geared to those a decade under 25, but it’s not just “Sex” that threw the conventional wisdom of aiming young out the door. Yes, “Indiana Jones” added popular young star Shia LaBeouf to the cast. However, producers didn’t sign up the starlet du jour as a love interest for leading man Harrison Ford. Instead, they brought back his “Raiders of the Lost Ark” romantic foil, Karen Allen, as a nod to the fans.

Mr. Dergarabedian says “Sex” isn’t the first film to prove women have some clout at the box office. “Take the Hannah Montana movie. Most of that audience was girls and women,” he points out. “‘Enchanted’ was a huge hit last year. Women love movies as much as men. If you don’t build it, nobody’s going to come.”

Studios haven’t quite gotten the message yet, though. “Speed Racer” was exactly the sort of movie studios think young men want to see - but few did. The $120 million film has made just $40 million so far. “It’s not always about the conventional wisdom,” Mr. Dergarabedian remarks.

In the case of “Sex and the City,” he notes this wasn’t just a film, but an event. “This was a hugely popular HBO show and a cultural and anthropological phenomenon,” he says. “It shows there is a huge potential female audience out there.”

That doesn’t mean you’ll see a crop of female-centered, big-budget summer movies next year, though. The only thing you can be sure of in Hollywood, he says, is that the studio is dying to greenlight “Sex and the City 2.”

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