The uphill battle for female-driven comedies
Los Angeles — “Bridesmaids” was supposed to change the game for the female-driven comedy. But each new movie is still treated like a beta test for the genre and the next unwitting subjects are “Ghostbusters,” out July 15, and “Bad Moms,” out July 29. Isn’t it supposed to be summer?
“Let’s wait and see how Ghostbusters does” has become a common phrase in the press and the industry — as if the future of female-led comedic blockbusters depends on Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon.
It all sounds eerily familiar to director Paul Feig, the high priest of female ensemble comedy. He heard the same thing with “Bridesmaids.”
“It’s unfair that women have to be put through litmus tests all the time. What if ‘Ghostbusters’ doesn’t work?” Feig said. “If a giant tent pole starring men doesn’t do well, people don’t go ‘oh well, we can’t have guys in movies anymore.’ ”
Kay Cannon, who wrote the a cappella comedy “Pitch Perfect” and its sequel, which together cost $46 million to make and earned $402.9 million worldwide, has had similar experiences.
“I feel like with every movie, we’re auditioning to be members of this business,” she said.
Former Universal Pictures Chairman Adam Fogelson, who greenlit “Bridesmaids” and “Pitch Perfect,” sees it differently.
“I think it is true that the movies are discussed that way. I’m not sure I think it’s true that in fact each movie carries that weight. People tend to forget just how many success stories there are,” Fogelson said, rattling off titles like “9 to 5,” ‘’The First Wives Club,” “Bring It On,” “Clueless,” “Mean Girls” and “Baby Mama.”
In his mind, if “Bridesmaids” was breaking any new ground, it was around the R-rating.
Fogelson’s company STX Entertainment is behind “Bad Moms,” starring Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell and Kathryn Hahn, which he guarantees will have an R-rating, too.
“There is no honest PG-13 expression of the frustrations, the challenges and the hilarity of pursuing perfect parenthood,” Fogelson said.
He also recognizes that beyond its R-rating, “Bridesmaids” took on an added significance that snowballed externally.
“Legally Blonde” co-screenwriter Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith was one leading the charge.
“I sent out a mass email saying ‘please support the endangered species of the female-driven comedy,’ ” Smith said.
As with most things in Hollywood, the effects of the film’s phenomenal success were complicated. Feig and his stars did well. “Pitch Perfect” got off the ground. But Smith’s peers weren’t seeing an uptick in project sales.
“It was like, ‘no, wait, this isn’t supposed to be happening. The movie’s a hit. Now we’re supposed to be able to sell all our female-driven comedies,’ ” she said. “It didn’t happen.”
She thinks some thought “Bridesmaids” was an anomaly.
Feig, meanwhile, continued to do his thing.
“I was hoping that I’d be able to show Hollywood that these movies are profitable and that they can stop using the excuse that men won’t show up,” Feig said.
He disproved the old box office myth that female-led movies “don’t travel” by creating “Spy,” a movie with all the elements of a marketable action-comedy that just happened to have a woman, McCarthy, as the lead.
But, again, it seemed to only benefit his circle.
“My end game wasn’t ‘OK, Paul Feig will make all the female-led movies,’ ” Feig said.
Now he’s dismayed that every summer there only seem to be a few, despite continued proof that they’re just good business.
For instance, in the summer of 2015, the so-called “summer of women,” four female-led studio comedies (“Pitch Perfect 2,” “Trainwreck,” “Spy,” “Hot Pursuit”) made over $715 million at the worldwide box office. The price tag: $164 million.
Hollywood, however, is not governed solely by the bottom line, but also by “comps.” It wants proven stars and proven properties. That limits the talent pool and leaves less room for originality, and it’s forcing those in this genre to get creative with existing properties, whether it’s gender swapping like the new “Ghostbusters” or just expanding a current universe like “Sister Act” (Smith and co-writer Karen McCullah recently turned in a draft for a third installment in the franchise).
“This is a means to an end and the most important thing is putting more films out there that feature smart, funny, strong and fiery women,” Smith said.
There are a few studios that have more female centric films on their roster, like 20th Century Fox’s Amy Schumer comedy “Mother/Daughter” and Universal’s “Pitch Perfect 3,” “Girl Trip” and “Bridget Jones’s Baby.” Beyond “Ghostbusters,” Sony has a “Charlie’s Angels” reboot, a live-action “Barbie” comedy, and the bachelorette party comedy “Rock that Body.”
But for Feig, it’s still the same old issue.
“It’s nice that there are any. ... There just need to be more,” he said. “Nobody should be celebrating or patting themselves on the back right now.”