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8 minute read
Richard Corliss

THE OTHER FRIDAY, JIM HOLL, 24, went with his wife Carrie, 25, to see the girls-to-women bonding drama Now and Then at a Los Angeles theater. “I did not come wholly of my own volition,” Holl confessed, “but I’ll watch and listen. We take turns choosing movies. Last time we saw Showgirls, which was really bad, and that was my pick. Besides, do you realize the points I get for this? I can watch three Monday Night Football games guilt free.” Ah, the things some men do for the women they love.

This year, though, a lot more people are paying to see that once endangered species, women’s pictures–and not always out of a sense of sacrifice. The summer movie season, usually a men-only province, was commandeered by a phalanx of women: teen dream Alicia Silverstone (Clueless), lonely heartthrob Sandra Bullock (While You Were Sleeping and The Net), ex-Marine schoolteacher Michelle Pfeiffer (Dangerous Minds) and a feminist princess named Pocahontas. Right now, with How to Make an American Quilt, Now and Then and Home for the Holidays, the plexes are awash in sisterhood cinema. And male moviegoers aren’t just staying home wishing Monday Night Football were on seven times a week. They are going to the mall to see whether these women’s films just might have something for everyone.

That last possibility is something the men who run the movies are finally considering. For two decades–since 1975, when Jaws proved that the all-male action adventure could generate huge returns–moguls have dreamed of tough-guy melodramas that produce nine-digit grosses. Because women’s films didn’t seem as if they could fulfill these home-run fantasies, studio chiefs saw trouble in women’s projects and had a litany of rejection phrases for them: “Risky.” “Guys choose the movie on a date, and women just go along.” “Too small; it’s a TV movie.” “Women’s films don’t make money.” “Why bother?”

The secret reason was that the moguls were men. Susan Sarandon, a movie actress for 25 years, has a theory on the wiring in the boss-men’s minds: “A picture gets made either because they want to be the guy who’s starring in it or they want to be with the woman. More often they want to be the guy. They want to be Kevin Costner. They think that everybody does–and that therefore the film’s going to make money.” Result: Hudson Hawk, Last Action Hero, Assassins, Waterworld.

Today any mogul can see the smart arithmetic in films of low to medium budget that earn medium to high grosses. “When an action movie costs $60 million and then tanks,” says actress-director Jodie Foster, “the studio takes a huge bath. But if you make reasonable films about people and how they relate to one another and the weird adventures they get into, you’re actually taking a very good risk.”

The risks were worth it from the beginning of Hollywood, as the moguls who in 1916 paid Mary Pickford an astounding $10,000 a week could attest. In the ’30s and ’40s, stars like Stanwyck, Hepburn, Davis, Garbo and Dietrich were not only paid as much as male stars but cast in strong roles. But then women stars retreated into the domestic comfort of TV, whose agenda they still set. And the guys took over the movies. The major exceptions were Barbra Streisand, Goldie Hawn and Bette Midler, stars who became producers and are heroines to today’s generation of actress-producers and studio comers.

What’s new? The chain of movie production and consumption. It goes like this:

1. There are many more women in decisionmaking seats at the big studios and in directors’ chairs on the set. Penny Marshall, the first woman director to have a flourishing Hollywood career (Big, A League of Their Own) since Dorothy Arzner in the ’30s, is joined by Amy Heckerling (Clueless), Gillian Armstrong (Little Women) and a dozen or so more. Trailblazing mogul-mama Sherry Lansing at Paramount has welcome competition in Laura Ziskin at Fox 2000 and Stacey Snider, Lucy Fisher and Lisa Henson at Sony. For once not all executive decisions can be made in the men’s room. “Today, when green-lighting movie lists,” says exec producer Lindsay Doran (The Firm and the forthcoming Sabrina), “maybe five men and five women are deciding. That really affects what is getting made.”

2. Stars are becoming their own producers–not just in vanity arrangements with the studios but with a welcome assertiveness that gets things done. “Winona Ryder, Jodie Foster, Sharon Stone, Michelle Pfeiffer, Demi Moore, Meg Ryan and some others are not only stars,” says Joan Hyler, president of the 13,000-member group Women in Film. “They are beginning to control their own destinies.” Silverstone is just 19, yet she has a $10 million, two-picture production deal at Columbia. And she is determined not to be battered or a bimbo. “I’m prepared to do anything–but no sex, no nudity and especially no victimized women.”

3. More women are seeing movies. They are, according to recent surveys, the fastest-growing segment of frequent ticket buyers (up 19% in two years). An adult woman on a date is more likely to choose the movie, and when not dating is more likely to see a film with other women than a man is with other men. Women represent upwards of 60% of the video market, which is where Hollywood makes its real money: video brings in 2 1/2 times as much as the box office does. If there is a large female audience–plus a healthy portion of men who don’t diet strictly on raw-meat action epics–then there will be women’s films.

4. And more of them will be hits. Twenty-two of this year’s releases have earned at least $50 million at the box office. Nine of these had female protagonists: Pocahontas, Casper, While You Were Sleeping, Dangerous Minds, The Bridges of Madison County, Species, Clueless, The Net and Something to Talk About.

The stats, however imposing, underplay the importance of these films to Hollywood’s bottom line. Women are so eager to make movies close to their hearts that they agree to make them on the cheap. Demi Moore, for example, is being paid a burly $12 million to star in next year’s Striptease. But as a producer, she got Now and Then made for the same $12 million. Little Women, with Sarandon and Ryder, took in $50 million at the U.S. wickets but cost only $18 million.

Potent women in other fields are also welcome in the new Hollywood. Whitney Houston, who co-stars in this Christmas’ Waiting to Exhale, has several projects in development, including a biopic of actress Dorothy Dandridge. And Oprah Winfrey just signed a five-year deal with Disney. “You won’t see me shooting or stalking or being shot,” she says. “I want to do films that enhance people’s lives.”

THE CATCH, FOR WINFREY OR any other movie woman, is that those films had better enhance studios’ purses. Male Hollywood may congratulate itself on allowing these women’s films, then blame a whole genre–indeed, a whole gender–if a few flop. “Women don’t get the second chances men get,” says Pfeiffer, who next year will produce and star in the romantic comedy One Fine Day. “We know we’ll pay more dearly for our failures. So we try to be a lot more sure about our choices.”

At the moment, the current fad for sorority movies threatens to fuse the entire genre into a wholesome blur. Was every grandma a font of domestic wisdom? Has Anne Bancroft assumed all the lovable grouch roles that used to be taken by Jessica Tandy? Will Winona Ryder ever get to play an adult? Ryder, Bullock and Julia Roberts all seem to be auditioning for the role of America’s Niece, and as a result their films come off a bit prim. “Hollywood is in a postfeminist era,” says Sharon Stone, one of the few current grownup actresses with that old movie-star radiance. “It’s less difficult to be accepted and paid equally as a woman than it is to have all that and be feminine at the same time. I think women want, need and have a right to experience their femininity in the job place.”

For now, women’s films are taking baby steps toward cinematic maturity. And they may get there faster than the guy movies do. Hear Sarah Pillsbury, co-producer with Midge Sanford of American Quilt, on action movies: “They aren’t familiar. They’re f—in’ identical! How many of these Assassins and Die Hards can we see? There is a saturation.”

Women’s films get to be different, and refreshingly so. They are about hugging, not punching; continuity, not apocalypses. Life’s rough accommodations make survival, with wits intact, a kind of triumph. “Women tend to honor and validate daily life and human transaction,” says Pillsbury, “and recognize that within the mundane the miraculous often exists. There are many ways to show that in films.”

Agreed. Now let the women who have seized some share of power get to it: making a quilt of distinctive movies. It could be the finest legacy for future moviegoers, sons and daughters alike.

–Reported by Georgia Harbison/New York and Jeffrey Ressner and Jacqueline Savaiano/Los Angeles

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