2008 posts big returns for fangirl fare

Hollywood has long relied on female pics to be dependable earners that open modestly and play long, rather than being big grossers right from the start.

Until this year. For the first time that anyone can remember, three femme-driven films — “High School Musical 3: Senior Year,” “Sex and the City,” “Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour” — opened to No. 1 at the B.O., making it abundantly clear that fangirls are every bit as important as fanboys.

For decades, more traditional romantic comedies have been a staple for studios looking to attract the distaff audience, with some of those females being counted on to drag their husbands or boyfriends along. What’s distinct about films like “Sex and the City,” or “Mamma Mia” is that they are more female-centric than a mainstream romantic comedy.

No one could believe it when “Sex and the City” grossed $20 million on its first Friday as women stormed theaters. That’s an unheard of number for the typical chick pic, since the demo isn’t known for rushing out on opening weekend.

“Females are galvanizing and turning out in huge numbers, just like young males,” says 20th Century Fox prexy of distribution Bruce Snyder. “They are turning movies into event titles, making a pic’s opening look more like a male actioner than a genteel female movie that would play out over a long period of time.”

It’s not just adult women who are becoming fangals — tweens and teenagers are driving the box office too. Tween girls fueled the success of “Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus” and “High School Musical 3,” while Summit Entertainment is targeting somewhat older teen girls with the upcoming “Twilight,” based on the best-selling vampire book series.

“Twilight” is enjoying strong tracking, and could mark the first major success for Summit when it bows Nov. 21. And, like “Sex and the City,” it could be a readymade film franchise, considering the whammo success of Stephanie Meyer’s “Twilight” series.

Two weeks out, online tickets for Friday shows of “Twilight” are selling at a record pace. But ask Summit how “Twilight” might compare with other films in terms of box office potential, and the company is hard-pressed to find another pic specifically targeting teen girls, save “Mean Girls.”

Now, studios may have to take care not to overload the market with too many titles. In February, “He’s Just Not That Into You” and “Confessions of a Shopaholic,” both based on best-selling books, open within a week of each other.

Films playing mainly to women, rather than simply romantic comedies, have gradually been seeping into Hollywood’s consciousness. In 2006, the runaway success of 20th Century Fox’s “The Devil Wears Prada” was a wake-up call, since it wasn’t a romantic comedy, but a comedy built around female characters. “Prada’s” savvy writing and Meryl Streep’s indelible portrayal set the bar high for the genre.

Fox positioned “Prada,” produced by Elizabeth Gabler’s Fox 2000, as counter-programming to “Superman Returns.” Opening to $27.5 million, film went on to cume $124.7 million.

“There is no more loyal audience than the female audience,” says Disney prexy of distribution Chuck Viane. “Females will go to a movie again and again. The number of repeat viewings is incredible. If you overlook females, you are ignoring a huge segment of the audience.”

The ultimate example is “Titanic,” which played in theaters for nine months and remains the highest grossing film of all time. Men did go to see “Titanic,” but women steered the pic’s historic box office ride.

In the past few years, the top 10 grossers of the year have been superhero-heavy. But this year, “Sex and the City” and Universal’s “Mamma Mia!” are still nesting in the top 10.

“Sex and the City’s ” $152.6 million cume puts it at No. 8 year-to-date, while Universal’s “Mamma Mia!” clocks in at No. 9 with a $143.7 million gross. That’s more than two testosterone-fueled titles, “The Incredible Hulk” ($135.4 million) and “Wanted” ($134.3 million).

Overseas gals are proving a boon as well. “Mamma Mia” has earned a staggering $415.1 million to date for a worldwide total of $558.8 million, making it the most successful musical of all time. “Sex and the City” cumed $260.8 million internationally for a worldwide total of $413.4 million.

“Hannah Montana” likewise stopped studio execs in their tracks when it cumed $65.3 million domestically. At its widest, the 3-D concert pic played on only 683 screens, which made its $31.1 million opening and ultimate cume all the more impressive.

The Mouse House says “Hannah” worked because it provided something for an underserved audience — girls who couldn’t see the concert in person.

“It makes you feel like you are a part of the actual concert,” Viane says.

On Feb. 27, Disney will release another 3-D concert film “The Jonas Brothers,” starring the boy band now drawing screams from preteens.

“High School Musical 3″ is another runaway success for the Mouse House. Pic has come in No. 1 at the domestic box office the past two weekends, with a cume of $65 million to date. Overseas, the musical has topped $100 million.

Studios like to claim their releases are four-quadrant films. But the latest crop of chick pics have shown there’s nothing wrong with a high-profile two quadrant title, playing to tween and teen girls, older women — or all of them.

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