This past weekend, something momentous happened in Hollywood. “Dear John," a chick flick based on a schmaltzy Nicholas Sparks novel and starring two only moderately famous actors, unseated “Avatar,” the most successful movie of all time.
Nobody saw it coming. Why not? One simple reason: Hollywood still doesn’t understand how to market to women.
As of last week, expectations for “Dear John”, were low, to say the least. Tracking reports indicated that it might make $15 million, $20 if Screen Gems got lucky and enough women dragged their boyfriends away from their televisions. Week after week, “Avatar” had claimed the number one spot. This certainly didn’t seem like the movie to dethrone it.
I mean, just consider its liabilities: Nicholas Sparks adaptations are by no means guaranteed successes -- for every “The Notebook,” there’s an “A Walk to Remember.” Last year’s release of “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” another treacly romance based on a best-selling novel, saw disappointing returns. Amanda Seyfried is best known for her supporting work in movies like Mama Mia and in the show “Big Love.” Channing Tatum is.. who’s Channing Tatum?
All in all, Hollywood insiders who don’t go to see movies like “Dear John” had no reason to think that “Dear John” would perform any better than expected.
The fact that it blew “Avatar” out of the water with a $30 million opening is indicative of the power of young female audiences. Studio executives like to claim that women don’t go see movies. And it’s true -- they don’t go to see movies that look boring, that look dumb, that pander. That’s why women ignored both “Fame” and “Leap Year” in equal measure.
But look at “Twilight.” “Look at Sex and the City.” Both movies started out with low-to-moderate expectations and eventually turned into major blockbusters, movies that women turned out to see in droves. Nobody told these women that they had to go see “Twilight” -- just as nobody told them they had to go see “Dear John.”
They went to see these movies because they wanted to, and then because they enjoyed them they went back to see them again and brought their friends along.
“Dear John” succeeded because teenage girls who went to Friday showings encouraged their friends to see showings on Saturday and Sunday. They enjoyed the movie for what it is: easy on the eyes, unabashedly romantic. They went because Amanda Seyfried is a likable, unthreatening actress and because Channing Tatum rocks the military look.
They went because social media, like it or not, is now a crucial marketing tool. Twitter can make or break a movie.
Following a weekend like this, studio executives inevitably walk into their Monday morning meetings and exchange confused looks. They talk about the success of the latest chick flick, shrug, chalk it up to serendipity and move on. But instead, they should be looking at why a movie like “Dear John” succeeds when one like “The Time Traveler’s Wife” does not.
Women are not one bloc of moviegoers whose needs can be pre-fitted into a predictable movie mold: Pre-Existing Romantic Property + Hot Star + Lithe Starlet = Box Office Gold.
Give us good movies, sexy movies, genuinely romantic movies. If you make them, we will come.
Amanda Sloane Murray is a Los Angeles-based script consultant and former studio executive. She runs an online script coverage business, ScriptBird, reviews television for IGN and blogs for PhotoCine News. She enjoys writing about the entertainment industry from a female perspective, which she believes it sorely lacks.