I picked a good year to start writing a column about women in film. More than ever before, women are gaining ground in Hollywood. We've got seasoned pros like Kathryn Bigelow finally getting mainstream clout. A number of high-profile projects are being made by women. And we're also seeing a distinct rise in the do-everything femmes like Felicia Day and Diablo Cody.
But it's not all roses. First Jennifer's Body went from long-term big-buzz to big-time flop, and now Whip It is sadly following suit. If you caught Eugene Novikov's Weekend Box Office, you might have noticed that while Zombieland kicks all sorts of living butt, and the 3-D Toy Story double feature grabbed spot #3, Drew Barrymore's kick-ass roller derby pic came in a supremely disappointing 7th Place.
One could argue that Body's questionable showing was at least partly due to the mixed reactions from critics and fans. Cody's horror pic couldn't even grab a half-and-half balance, nestling in at 42% fresh at Rotten Tomatoes. Some loved it, others hated it. But even with some really bad reviews, it still beat Drew. Whip It! earned almost double the critical love (82% fresh), but pulled in a whopping $2 million less than the Body in its opening weekend ($4.85 million). 2 mil might not mean as much when you're in the hundreds, but it sure as heck means a lot when you can't even bring in 5.
What went wrong, and how can we fix it before this excellent cinematic momentum is halted?
How does a femme-centric film get critical love from male and female critics alike, of all different ages, and not even make back a third of its modest budget during the opening weekend rush? Yes, one can note the divide between critics and fans, but we're not talking about a heavy drama or art-house piece that appeals to the biggest fans of cinema while repelling mainstream audiences. This is a light-hearted, easy-to-ingest comedy that balances laughs, hearts, and hardcore roller derby action.
Anne Thompson quoted a studio marketing exec as saying: "Women aren't showing up. Girls don't get into roller derby." But that sentiment seems awfully reductionary. There are a lot of films with unfamiliar premises that get audience love, and I highly doubt that women are seeing the roller derby spin and thinking "Ew, I'm not into that!" It seems much more likely that female audiences were solidly directed towards Zombieland after it's excellently catchy trailers and slowly building marketing momentum. As Thompson states, Fox Searchlight seems to have dropped the ball.
If you're not going to play the game of slowly building anticipation, you've got to have one sleek marketing campaign lined up that will knock the socks off of any and all competitors -- especially when your main competition is a zombie flick grabbing a fan-base well before its release. Coming-of-age films with sweet stories can be a whole lot of fun (as movies like Whip It! prove), but a slowly building, feel-good trailer isn't going to be able to battle against a really funny one rife with one-liners and zombie cleverness.
In fact, it might just get a wholly unexpected crowd. The comments on Melissa Silverstein's post about the box office crash note an interesting phenomenon. Three separate commenters noted the age of the audience. One notes a theater full of people over 30, while two others also note a large number of senior citizens in the audience. Correct me if I have missed something, but gran and gramps aren't the usual audience for a roller derby film, so something was appealing to them. Either they are weekly filmgoers who ignore the trailers and chose retro roller skates over zombies, or this marketing campaign has sucked in an unintended and smaller crowd.
The big problem is, whether I'm right about the marketing or not, it's just another wrench in the world of female filmmaking. Undoubtedly, some will see these numbers as an example of a woman's talent or worth without taking into consideration extenuating factors, and this could seriously hurt all of the great advancements made in the last year.
I can't help but wonder how the film would've fared if the marketing campaign had time to build, and either had a rock 'em, sock 'em trailer to battle against Zombieland, or maybe a release date back or ahead a week or two. What do you think?
We can only spread the word and hope that sparks a larger audience because even if you aren't a fan of Whip It! style cinema, what would you rather have: A collection of femme-centric fare that's spunky and full of flare, or yet more generic rom-coms that make our eyes bleed in agony?