Expectations are high for this weekend's most buzzed-about new film, 'Bridesmaids.' A modestly-budgeted, bawdy laugher featuring no major movie stars, 'Bridesmaids' has found itself in an unexpected position: For many, its success or failure will determine the future of female-driven comedy on the big screen. And that's no laughing matter.
It's no secret that it is far more difficult to get a female-fronted film, particularly a comedy, made in Hollywood. Women accounted for only 16 percent of the key jobs -- director, producer and writer among them -- on the top 250 films of 2010; only 7 percent of those films were directed by a woman. It's also not a stretch to say that the support of producer Judd Apatow ('Knocked Up,' 'The 40 Year Old Virgin') was instrumental in getting 'Bridesmaids,' with its definitely un-ladylike humor, made in the first place.
Female-oriented website Jezebel perhaps best quantifies the challenge faced by 'Bridesmaids' and other female-fronted comedies, saying, "One of the things that sucks about being few or first: You get heightened scrutiny both from the people rooting for you and the people whose inertia or outside motivations mean rooting for you to fail."
With many studios reportedly waiting to see how 'Bridesmaids' performs at the box office before giving the go-ahead to other lady-centric comedies, the scrutiny from both sides could not be more intense.
'Bridesmaids' has become a contentious film mostly because it is falls outside the rom-com paradigm studios are comfortable with and more closely resembles the outrageous, gross-out "bromance" that has become the functioning norm for mainstream Hollywood comedy. Buoyed by the success of films like 'The Hangover,' 'Pineapple Express' and 'Wedding Crashers,' which grossed a combined $852 million worldwide, the genre is a go-to for studios looking for a sure thing that doesn't cost $150 million to produce.
"In my opinion, I think it's a game changer," 'Bridesmaids' co-star Melissa McCarthy tells Entertainment Weekly. "If you see a script with two great female parts, it's a win. But six! Six in a movie, six fully formed great characters."
The film could be transformative in many ways, and part of the conversation around 'Bridesmaids' has centered on audiences' discomfort with the change it represents. Studios are waiting to see how 'Bridesmaids' performs at the box office because there is a perception in the industry that these types of films won't work because women don't want to see them, preferring by-the-numbers romances or inspirational dramas like 'Eat, Pray, Love' over bawdy comedy. Worse still, there is a fear that men don't want to see women as central characters at all, particularly when things get raunchy.
Of course, every studio hopes that its film will reach the broadest possible audience, but movies are made specifically for male audiences all the time, and you can bet that no studio is awaiting the box office returns for 'The Hangover Part 2' before green-lighting the next Seth Rogen vehicle. Yet the entire future of female comedy seems to have been hitched (by the press and studios, at least) to one film -- and it's a risky one, by some accounts.
"In my experience, girls revealing themselves as candid and raunchy doesn't appeal to guys at all," Stacey Snider, a partner in and the CEO of DreamWorks Studios, told The New Yorker for its profile of funny lady Anna Faris.
There's also the notion, put controversially in print by Christopher Hitchens in a 2007 Vanity Fair article, that women simply aren't funny. It's a ridiculous idea, of course, but it has permeated Hollywood so much that Tina Fey commented on it in her new book of essays, 'Bossypants': "It's an impressively arrogant move to conclude that just because you don't like something, it is empirically not good. I don't like Chinese food, but I don't write articles trying to prove that it doesn't exist."
Hitchens' words struck a chord for Fey and other women in the entertainment industry because, as previously mentioned, the vast majority of those working in major positions, including studio executives, in Hollywood are men. If men don't think women are funny, as Hitchens opines, they are less likely to move forward with comedic films starring, directed or written by women ... unless one such movie does the one thing that cancels out any single opinion or review a film garners: It becomes a box office hit.
Money talks, and that's why 'Bridesmaids' has taken on such importance. It is a film that got made against the odds and has the potential either to be a break-out hit or a complete misfire. So, it's become an emblem for major studios waiting to see if the long-held dismissive attitude toward female comedy in Tinseltown was shortsighted or reflective of the greater movie-going public's own feelings.
If the film is a hit, expect a landslide of female-fronted films that have been on the backburner to be thrust into production. Among them, a female stoner comedy bought by Natalie Portman's production company and 'The Low Self-Esteem of Lizzie Gillespie,' from Emmy-nominated 'Office' writer and star Mindy Kaling. If the early reviews for 'Bridesmaids' are any indication, Portman and Kaling would be well-advised to start readying themselves for work.