AWFJ Women On Film – The Week In Women, October 9, 2009 – MaryAnn Johanson

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The secret of Hollywood success: cheat women. Also: movies about girls are icky, Victorian smelling salts not required, and more.

PLEASE, SIR, MAY SHE HAVE SOME MORE? Hollywood is hurting these days, but Forbes has the secret for boosting its bottom line: pay people less. Well, actually, not all people, just women. From its new rundown of “Best Actresses for the Buck”:

Nowadays, strapped studios are just as interested in what kind of return on investment they can get for their money when hiring a leading lady. Sure, Angelina Jolie brings instant press attention to a project, but is she worth upward of $10 million?

Based on our latest estimations of the actresses in Hollywood who offer studios the best return on investment, there are plenty who offer more bang for the buck than Jolie. The women who came out on the top of our list tend to be lower-profile stars who are happy earning paychecks of around $5 million and under.

In other words, underpay your talent, and you can make more dough off them. And because roles for women are so tough to come by in the first place, they’ll be happy for any job, at any paycheck, even if it’s smaller than they deserve.

Now, this isn’t about feeling sorry for, say, Naomi Watts, Forbes’ most profitable actress (for the studios, that is, not for herself): Her average $5 million payday, which Forbes determines is an excellent investment, is still good money by any measure. So we’re not crying for Watts. We’re crying for all women, who — by the measure that much of the world goes by: money — can’t measure up. Male actors can receive $20 million paychecks for movies that flop — and for movies that might possibly have turned a profit if not for their salaries inflating the budgets — but they still get work, and they’re still deemed worthy of their paychecks. Not so for women. And that Forbes even conceived of framing the issue in this way is indicative of the corporate attitudes that are informing our entire economy: paying employees desperate for a job as little as you can get away with for their work is simply good business sense.

What’s more:

One thing most of the actresses on this list have in common is that they did not carry the films on their own. In Hollywood, it’s still rare for a woman to be the main star. For the most part, women are co-stars or they appear in ensemble films like He’s Just Not That Into You, which was a surprise hit in February, earning $177 million at the box office worldwide.

So, not only do the studios not have to pay women as much as they pay men, they needn’t bother making movies about women at all. It just doesn’t make good business sense. Because “good business sense” these days isn’t merely about turning a nice profit — it’s about turning an obscene profit.

And that’s obscene.

MOVIES ABOUT GIRLS ARE ICKY, AREN’T THEY? Speaking of movies about women… It’s happened again. One movie about women, Whip It, didn’t do as well at the box office last weekend as it might have, and suddenly it’s the death knell for movies about women, as AWFJ member Anne Thompson highlights:

Movies aimed at women are having a tough time gaining market traction.

Cinetic Media’s Matt Dentler asks on Twitter: “After the very poor starts for “Whip It,” “Jennifer’s Body,” and “Bright Star,” what does that mean for the future of young women’s movies?” I argue that each movie faced its own set of issues.

Thompson goes on to detail those issues, and it’s worth a read, but it’s beside my point: When The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard and Miss March flopped this year, did anyone wonder if this was the end of juvenile grossouts? When The Collector and Pandorum crashed and burned recently, did anyone fret that this meant the end of horror? No, of course not, because any given example of a movie aimed, presumably, primarily at men is never taken as indicative of all movies aimed at men. Even movies at which audiences are at least half female — such as this year’s so-far No. 2 moneymaker, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, for which the opening weekend audience was 57 percent female — are never seen as “women’s movies,” and so of course they cannot be counted when one wonders whether “women’s movies” are doomed.

I get that Hollywood is all about money, that it’s first and foremost a business. But that’s hard to swallow when the people in charge and many of those who watch the industry can’t see the blinders they’re working with, or that if they removed those blinders, they might make even more money.

The mind, it boggles.

VICTORIAN SMELLING SALTS NOT REQUIRED. Hoorah for Rachel Sklar, who, at Mediaite, picks apart some of the bizarre reaction to the David Letterman non-scandal. First, she quotes David Bauder at the Associated Press, who appears to feel that his notions of what’s what make more sense than rock-solid fact:

Letterman’s prickly personality and sarcastic humor seem tailor-made for a young, male audience.

Except, as Bauder continues:

But the facts tell a different story: Letterman’s typical audience was 58 percent female last season, with an average age of just under 55, according to the Nielsen Co.

Bauder’s disconnect struck me as odd, too, but I’ll leave it to Sklar to explain:

Okay, so: If “the facts tell a different story” than your wholly unsupported assertion, don’t you think that maybe you should amend that assertion? Like, “Letterman’s prickly personality and sarcastic humor has broad demographic appeal, but women take the lion’s share — Letterman’s typical audience was 58 percent female last season, with an average age of just under 55, according to the Nielsen Co.” Or how about “Women respond well to Letterman — between Stupid Human Tricks, goofy Top Ten lists and genial but newsmaking interviews, Letterman’s typical audience was 58 percent female last season, with an average age of just under 55, according to the Nielsen Co. No doubt his habit of featuring his mom as a roving correspondent helps, too.” At least these conclusions fit the data — because if you say “I think X but it’s actually Y,” then what’s actually off is your thinking.

This sort of sloppy assumption-making always drives me crazy, but especially here, where it’s meant to draw gender distinctions along the lines of “what’s funny,” which is pretty much code for “what’s cool.” (Play the “Leno or Letterman?” game sometime; have fun by accusing your comedian friends of secretly liking Leno.) To suggest that women don’t appreciate edgy, acerbic comedy is ludicrous, and plays into dumb notions that women aren’t funny (other dumb notions: pretty women aren’t funny, women over 35 aren’t funny, etc. etc. etc).

The real issue with Bauder, however, is the thesis behind his article: “Will women viewers turn away from Letterman?” he asks, due to… what? The fact that he had consensual sex with a coworker? That isn’t automatically sexual harrassment, and there’s been no indication in this case that it was.

Bauder needn’t worry about our delicate female sensibilites. If we can handle Letterman’s prickly personality and sarcastic humor, I think we can handle a little naughty nookie.

POLANSKI UPDATE. AWFJ’s Jennifer Merin notes on About.com that the 2008 documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired — which appeared to indicate that Polanski may have been railroaded in his initial prosecution for rape — has been, in part, debunked… by one of the prosecuting attorneys who appeared in the film. Merin writes:

Part of the new evidence brought to light in Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired is the on camera admission by former prosecuting attorney David Wells that he’d spoken with Judge Rittenband ex parte about the case, advising him on sentencing strategy. Now it seems that Wells is backing down on that admission, admitting instead that he lied to filmmaker Marina Zenovich about the incident.

“No. It never happened…I lied. I know I shouldn’t have done it, but I did. The director of the documentary told me it would never air in the States. I thought it made a better story if I said I’d told the judge what to do,” Wells told former LA DA Marcia Clark, who reports the conversation and gives her conclusions about it in her The Daily Beast column.

It’s odd that someone would believe information as (potentially) explosive as this would not cross international borders, particularly in the Internet era. (And it also makes me wonder how many defense attorneys are now preparing appeals based on the fact that the DA may have lied in court because it made for “a better story” to the jury, but that’s another matter.)

Director Marina Zenovich responds to Wells’ revelation (also at Merin’s About.com documentary blog):

I am perplexed by the timing of David Wells’ statement to the press that he lied in his interview with me for the documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. Since June of 2008, the film has been quite visible on U.S. television via HBO, in theaters and on DVD, so it is odd that David Wells has not brought this issue to my attention before.

For the record, on the day I filmed Mr. Wells at the Malibu Courthouse, February 11, 2005, he gave me a one-hour interview. He signed a release like all my other interviewees, giving me permission to use his interview in the documentary worldwide. At no time did I tell him that the film would not air in the United States.

Mr. Wells was always friendly and open with me. At no point in the four years since our interview has he ever raised any issues about its content. In fact, in a July 2008 story in The New York Times, Mr. Wells corroborated the account of events that he gave in my film.

I am astonished that he has now changed his story. It is a sad day for documentary filmmakers when something like this happens.

Looks like Wells might have wanted to ride the Polanski bandwagon — either then or now — for his own benefit.

OPENING THIS WEEK. An Education is that most rare of movies: it’s a story about a girl that treats her as a person. Look for outta-nowhere star Carey Mulligan to become a household name — she’s that riveting. And look for Michelle Monghan to finally get the recognition she deserves after Trucker, for her uncompromising portrayal of a woman who lives life on her own terms.

(See the AWFJ’s regular rundown of women-centered new releases here.)

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MaryAnn Johanson

MaryAnn Johanson is a freelance writer on film, TV, DVD, and pop culture from New York City and now based in London. She is the webmaster and sole critic at FlickFilosopher.com, which debuted in 1997 and is now one of the most popular, most respected, and longest-running movie-related sites on the Internet. Her film reviews also appear in a variety of alternative-weekly newspapers across the U.S. Johanson is one of only a few film critics who is a member of The International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences (the Webby organization), an invitation-only, 500-member body of leading Web experts, business figures, luminaries, visionaries and creative celebrities. She is also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. She has appeared as a cultural commentator on BBC Radio, LBC-London, and on local radio programs across North America, and she served as a judge at the first Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Film Festival at the 2003 I-Con, the largest SF convention on the East Coast. She is the author of The Totally Geeky Guide to The Princess Bride, and is an award-winning screenwriter. Read Johanson's recent articles below. For her AWFJ.org archive, type "MaryAnn Johanson" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).