After reading Manohla Dargis’ piece in the New York Times and her subsequent interview with Jezebel.com, I felt the need to write the following open letter to the heads of all the feature film studios in the United States.
Dear Sirs (+ the one madam co-chair):
I would like to introduce myself. My name is Ashley, I am one of your customers. One of your 51 percent, to be exact. Ironically, I’m also on the cusp of two age brackets that seem to allude you. Being 28 years old, I’m just edging past your “Twilight” audience and will soon hit your 35+ when-its-a-hit-it-must-be-a-fluke audience. Not only am I one of your customers, but I also happen to be one of you, albeit a very low-level one of you. I feel this puts me in a unique situation, I know your audience because I am your audience; AND, because I’m somewhat of an insider, I’ve struck upon a solution to your problem. A solution that will make you even more money than you’re making now. I’m talking Twilight, The Dark Night, and Mamma Mia kind of money. Believe-it-or-not, it’s not as hard as you think and it’s actually something you know how to do already: make movies. But not just any movies; movies that 51 percent of your audience can relate to and which feature the work of those members of our 51 percent who make their careers in feature film.
Don’t get me wrong, I know you get cross-over audiences. I’m just as likely to see a romantic comedy as I am the next Bourne movie, but I’m even more likely to see a Bourne movie directed by Kathryn Bigelow. I’d probably even go back for seconds if you decided to expand Julia Stiles’ character or give Joan Allen’s more of a back story. Like Bourne, I want to know what taunts them, what makes them tick and what makes them want to find Jason Bourne (because, let’s face it, it’s beyond just their professional duty at this point).
I like stories with style and substance, but I also like action, chase scenes and even my fair share of violence. My favorite movie is “The Silence of the Lambs.” “SOTL” is a great example of how to make a movie that grabs 100 percent of your adult audience: follow the hero’s journey. In this case, the hero just happens to be a 5′ tall heroine and her unlikely leading man is a serial killing cannibal. There’s blood, guts, gore and most importantly, STORY. Both men and women alike invest in these characters because we learn what makes them tick. But women have an extra investment in this particular story (this is the reason why we go back to see it again, recommend it to our friends, buy it, download it, etc.) we see ourselves up on the screen, a lone woman among men in an elevator. Every woman has experienced that moment, just as every woman’s secret desire (like Agent Starling’s) is to save the world.
I also like my romantic comedies to be smart. Yes, I do like to see pretty things and pretty people on a screen, but I’m not an idiot either. I’d trade in a beautiful set and a character’s designer wardrobe for a really good story. Make more movies like “When Harry Met Sally.” Those characters had a story and they had great conversations about things we all discuss at dinner parties or over the phone with friends. Many elements of the script came from actual conversations between Rob Reiner and Nora Ephron. And guess what? That movie appealed to men as well. Why? Two reasons: 1) They saw themselves in Billy Crystal: he is the every man and he got the girl; 2) Insight into women. Yes, we sometimes fake orgasms. Now you know.
The “Buddy Movie” (now recoined as the “Bromance” or “A Judd Apatow”) We, the 51 percent of your audience, have only one of these movies to stick a flag in and call our own: “Thelma and Louise.” This movie was made in 1991. Oh, wait, there was another female buddy movie! In 2002, producer Cathy Konrad put out a hilarious flick (penned by Nancy Pimental) called “The Sweetest Thing.” I was in college. I saw it two times on opening weekend with seven other female friends. It still remains the closest we’ll ever get to “The Hangover” for women. Speaking of which, if “The Hangover” was pitched with an entirely female cast, it would never have gotten made. Though I have no doubt there would have been an audience for it — made up of both genders.
The drama (aka “The Oscar movie” or “The Meryl Streep”). In their current state, these movies have a slightly better shot at appealing to me and my fellow 51 percenters because they feature more screen time for women (usually women who can no longer wrinkle their foreheads, but that’s a different letter for another day). The funny thing about these movies is that they’re rarely directed and/or written by women. Though I love men who can write wonderful parts for women (hello, Michael Cunningham), they are not women, and, as such, they will always leave the character with an unexplored territory. It’s one thing for a woman to be mysterious, but another thing to leave 51 percent of us knowing there is so much more to the story that needs to be told. “The Hours” has a great scene which touches upon this, when Clarissa Vaughn talks to her daughter about a moment in her youth:
“I remember one morning getting up at dawn, there was such a sense of possibility. You know, that feeling? And I remember thinking to myself: So, this is the beginning of happiness. This is where it starts. And of course there will always be more. It never occurred to me it wasn’t the beginning. It was happiness. It was the moment. Right then.”
Contained within those lines are two potential movies for two generations of women, “the sense of possibility” movie, reaching audiences from their late teens – 30s, and “the moment looking back” movie, for the 40/50/60 female audience. I want to know what that woman sees as both a 20-something and then as a 50-something woman. Romantic comedies offer shades of these moments as well, though they are even fewer and farther between.
I believe women go to rom coms and dramas because they crave any glimmer of seeing their lives reflected back at them, no matter how fleeting of a moment it may be. We women store up a mosaic of these moments and play them back in our minds when we need them. A “greatest hits” if you will. They are our touchstone, our reminder that we are seen, we are remembered; we do serve a purpose. But wouldn’t it be even better if we didn’t need a highlights reel? If the marquee at our local theaters advertised movies where we saw ourselves and our husbands/boyfriends/friends/girlfriends/teens depicted by someone like us who knows the way we think, the way we see, who gives us not “women’s movies” but movies from our perspective? And, maybe even a woman who gives us male viewpoints just as dramatically or funny as the Michael Manns or Judd Apatows of the world, but from a fresh perspective.
I am one of your 51 percent. And, I am also your colleague. I want to see a reflection of myself on a screen just as much as I want to see my name in the credits. I am a part of both sides of this letter. And, I will keep moving forward both from my seat and on a set, until my voice is heard. Because when it finally is, there will be 51 percent of the world’s population behind it. I hope you start listening.
-Ashley Van Buren