'Bridesmaids,' 'The Help' draw women audiences – and big box-office numbers

The surprise success of both 'Bridesmaids' and 'The Help' has shown that when the film is right, women can deliver some powerful box-office clout.

Universal Pictures
Maya Rudolph, Kristen Wiig and Ellie Kemper appear (l. to r.) in 'Bridesmaids,' a comedy dubbed the “female 'Hangover.'

Summer is traditionally the time for testosterone-driven films to rule at the multiplex. But the surprise success of both “Bridesmaids” and “The Help,” two films about female experiences, has shown that when the film is right, women can deliver some powerful box-office clout.

The raunchy R-rated comedy about a group of young women and a wedding has powered past all the comic-book heroes in “Captain America,” “Green Lantern,” and “X-Men: First Class,” pulling in $167 million in its domestic take so far. And “The Help,” a 1960s civil rights drama about a trio of women – two black, one white – who take a stand against racism in Jackson, Miss., is at $71 million and counting. It won the weekly box-office race on its second weekend out.

According to the ticket site Fandango.com, the film, which is based on a novel of the same name, is the second-biggest advance ticket seller of the summer, behind only the final Harry Potter film.

In other words, women have been lining up to see the films.

“Women are the great, underestimated audience,” says Paul Dergarabedian, Hollywood.com box-office expert. “When they relate to a movie, they don’t let it go. They take their friends; they go over and over and talk about it to everyone.”

He adds, “Hollywood discovered this with ‘Titanic’ in 1997, but it just seems to keep forgetting.”

The 1990s were filled with great character-driven movies marketed to women, says Marc DiPaolo, assistant professor of English and film at Oklahoma City University and author of “War, Politics and Superheroes.” But, he says via e-mail, “the war on terror helped fuel an interest in escapist, good-versus-evil movies, and realism took a back seat to comic book superhero patriotism.”

As a result, he notes, the Miramax-style woman's film was driven out of the multiplex for nearly a decade. Now, enough time has passed that audiences have wearied of the “male-centric, adolescent sensibilities of comic book films, and they want to see movies about real people – and about women – once again,” Professor DiPaolo writes.

Beyond that, he says, it is easier to recoup budget costs for a film about four women drinking tea than a “bloated space epic that has more computer-generated sets than physical ones.”

As Mr. Dergarabedian noted, women tend to be very social when it comes to movies, says Mary Ellen Balchunis, a political science professor at La Salle University in Philadelphia. “When there is a movie that hits home with females, they tend to make it a girlfriend movie,” she says.

Professor Balchunis herself teams up with friends and their daughters for films, adding that for comedies such as “Sex and the City,” “we all dressed up as our favorite characters and went out afterwards to talk about what we’d seen.”

Realism with the power to teach about historical events has a particular power at the moment, she adds. “In hard economic times, people want things they can relate to or get inspiration from,” she says. “When we see that we are not alone in our struggles, we feel our burdens lifted a little.” The fantasy provided by superheroes isn’t connecting with audiences, she says, while “films such as ‘The Help’ are ones we can connect with.”

The appeal of “Bridesmaids” is very different though no less effective in pulling in the female audience, says Bradley Ricca, a SAGES fellow at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

The film was dubbed the “female ‘Hangover’ ” for its gross-out factor, he says via e-mail, adding, “This sort of re-appropriation of a traditionally male genre can sometimes be very successful.”

This is nothing new in Hollywood, he points out, going back to Mae West, Bette Davis, and others. Such actresses would “adopt a sexually-predatory persona that while some found it ‘un-ladylike,’ it helped raise their stars considerably.”

The foray into so-called male vices, Mr. Ricca adds, can also make the films “safe” for male audiences.

Indeed, studios would be well advised to pay more attention to who moves ticket buyers out the front door and into a movie theater, says Adrienne Mazzone, a publicist in Boca Raton, Fla. “I have never heard my boyfriend pick up the paper and say, ‘Hey this looks good. Why don’t we head out and see this movie?’ ” she says with a laugh. “If we go out at all,” she says, “it is always me who picks the movie and actually gets us out.”

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