Femme films find their footing

'Love,' 'Alex,' 'Blonde 2' to unspool against major tentpoles

HOLLYWOOD — The chick flick is flexing its B.O. muscles. Once dismissed as femme fluff, such pics are showing surprising durability — especially as counterprogramming to male-skewing movie heavyweights.

Four of the genre’s most recent entries — “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” “Two Weeks Notice,” “Maid in Manhattan” and “Sweet Home Alabama” — combined for more than $400 million in domestic grosses.

And don’t forget that last year’s No. 5 grosser, at $241 million, was “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

The new wrinkle this year is that studios have developed enough faith in chick flicks that they’re slotting them against major tentpoles in the heat of summer, a season where they previously opened only if they starred Julia Roberts or Meg Ryan.

“The Lizzie McGuire Movie,” sort of a debutante version, more than held its own against “X2” in the first weekend in May.

Still to come this summer:

  • Fox opens Rene Zellweger’s romantic comedy “Down With Love” on May 16 opposite Warner’s “The Matrix Reloaded;”

  • Warners will debut “Alex and Emma,” a romantic comedy/drama starring Kate Hudson, on June 20 against U’s “The Hulk.”

  • MGM opens Reese Witherspoon’s “Legally Blonde 2” on July 2 against Warner’s “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.”

“Chick flicks were originally first and foremost a form of counterprogramming, so I think it’s a tremendous show of confidence that they now have enough muscle and crossover potential to open in the summer,” says Paramount-based Lynda Obst.

Her producer credits include a sizable share of femme-flavored pics, among them “How to Lose a Guy,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” “Hope Floats,” “One Fine Day,” “Someone Like You,” “Contact” and “Flashdance,” now recognized as perhaps the mother of all chick flicks.

The genre has even become entrenched enough to have spawned a visual gag in “How to Lose a Guy,” in which Kate Hudson’s character takes boyfriend Matthew McConaughey to a Chick Flick Festival — showing “Sleepless in Seattle,” “Mystic Pizza,” “When Harry Met Sally” and “Fried Green Tomatoes.”

“The original scene that Burr Steers wrote had ‘The All-Night Nora Ephron Marathon'” Obst recalls.

“It was a scene clearly designed to show men being tortured but I felt it should not be personalized to that extent, as if Nora was responsible for all the chick flicks of the last 20 years. And it’s not as if only women can do chick flicks, since Donald Petrie directed both ‘How to Lose a Guy’ and ‘Mystic Pizza.'”

Why does the genre work?

“I think it’s because it reinforces the American Dream that you can get the love everyone wants and that you can be a part of the protagonist’s dreams,” Obst says.

It’s not as if there’s a chick flick opening every single weekend, but signs are clear that the category is expanding:

  • At a time when cost-cutting is rampant, studios are more willing to take a chance on an audience of baby boomer women and their daughters.

  • Three studios are headed by women — Sherry Lansing at Paramount, Amy Pascal at Sony and Stacy Snider at Universal. And Nina Jacobson is prexy of Disney’s motion picture group.

  • Stars like Sandra Bullock (Fortis), Drew Barrymore (Flower), Julia Roberts (Red Om), Jennifer Lopez (Nuyorican) and Reese Witherspoon (Type A) operate studio-based production shingles; New Line-based producer Sara Risher even calls her company ChickFlicks.

  • And Male moviegoers have finally gotten comfortable with chick flicks.

“We see it on the preview cards — guys really like these movies,” Obst asserts. “Though a lot of them are still too embarrassed to admit it.”

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