Last Sunday, I journeyed to the Critierion to see “Lawless.” I was treated to an evening of excessive violence, a confused and incoherent plotline, and characters so flat that the audience giggled at their supposedly dramatic ends. Perhaps “treated” would be the wrong word.
Yet what fascinated and disappointed me most about my evening was not the film itself, but rather the barrage of previews that I was subjected to beforehand. Four out of the five previews featured colossal guns, treacherous shootouts and death-defying stunts. My adrenaline was certainly running, but my brainwaves remained flat — plots were scarce, and any emotion other than terror and excitement were unheard of. I saw two women in these previews, both scantily clad and clearly objects implanted to elicit sexual desire rather than to move a story forward.
To be fair, I must admit to having some hand in my movie-going fate: I had chosen the film, knowing what kind of an audience it was aimed at. Naturally, it would be an economically sound decision to fill the audience’s mind with upcoming films of a similar breed. Yet, looking at the current box-office trends, one notices my qualms with such a limited range of style on a larger scale. The films released in the largest number of theaters for the past three months have been “Lawless,” “The Expendables 2,” “The Bourne Legacy,” and “The Dark Knight Rises.” Each of these would have fit the mold of the “Lawless” coming attractions; each was aimed at the movie-going demographic consisting of 18- to 25-year-old men.
During a summer in Los Angeles, I repeatedly heard comments that verified such box-office evidence. I was told that if one wants to make the biggest box office buck, he must produce a film aimed at that population. Apparently, this demographic can be consistently depended on to purchase a weekly movie ticket. Looking at box-office statistics, there exists nothing to prove such a conclusion false. This summer’s top blockbusters, from superhero epics to crass comedies, were aimed almost exclusively at young men.
However, I am immediately struck by a problem of causality. If Hollywood continues to aim its resources at said audience, producing films made exclusively for their eyes, will that audience not naturally have the highest turnout? Based on counter-examples from this summer’s box office, I think it may be time for Hollywood to change its attitude.
I did not want to go see “Magic Mike.” Yet, there I found myself, dragged in by a co-worker, sitting in the front row on opening night. And, I must admit it was one of the most affirming theater-going experiences I have had in a long time. The theatre was brimming with women aged 18–30. They hadn’t come for the film’s plot — although it was surprisingly coherent and engaging. They had come for the male strippers. Not ten minutes passed without a catcall up at the screen. “Take if off, Tatum!” they demanded. If I had been watching “Magic Mike” at home, I most likely would have turned off the film after half an hour. Yet, here is the enchantment of the theater experience. Viewing the film with an audience — albeit the undesirable female one — made for an surpisingly thought-provoking and fascinating, evening.
Upon leaving the theatre, my mind began to spin. Why was “Magic Mike” such an innovation? Why hasn’t such an audience already been tapped? Years ago, Jean-Luc Godard once wrote, “All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl.” Such a formula has been exercised so relentlessly that it has now become expected. No one questioned that Scarlett Johansson’s character in “The Avengers” was the only one without a super power — her purpose was purely her sex appeal.
Hollywood has often flirted with the idea of harnessing a female audience through male sex appeal, but usually simply by inserting handsome men as films’ protagonists. With “Magic Mike,” Warner Brothers filled an empty niche, turning the tables to capitalize on male sex appeal and bring in a female audience. “Magic Mike” beat “The Bourne Legacy” at the box office by over $6 million, and cost $118 million dollars less to produce. It beat “The Expendables 2” at the box office by $33 million, and cost $93 million less to produce. Catering to a female audience seems like pretty good economics.
And what of other surprise box office hits this summer. “Hope Springs”? “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”? “To Rome With Love”? While Meryl Streep and Judi Dench have their appeal, they are not exactly flaunting bikinis or booty shorts. These films succeeded because of their appeal to middle-aged and elderly audiences, many of whom no longer work, and therefore become consistent theatregoers. Such films were made on fractions of the budgets of the summer’s top action films, and still managed to stand strong at the box office.
I challenge Hollywood’s studios to change things up, making groups like women and the elderly box office aims rather than niche specialties. While men aged 18–25 can certainly provide box office bucks, using Hollywood’s resources solely for their benefit is economically unsound. While Godard’s method may prove successful in many an instance, I propose there are other formulas for box office hits. What about a guy and a stripper pole?
Contact Becca Edelman at