It was a very big Thanksgiving weekend at the American box office. In its second weekend, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire brought in $109 million, beating the five-day Thanksgiving record set by Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Meanwhile, Disney’s debuting Frozen did a bang-up $93 million in the same time frame, itself setting a record for the biggest Thanksgiving opening ever (a mantle it nabbed from Toy Story 2). Neither record comes as a surprise; these were big, widely marketed movies from a tentpole franchise and cinematic brand name, respectively. But they had something in common: both were films with female protagonists, and their massive grosses were driven by female moviegoers. “That’s box-office Girl Power,” notes The Wrap, and if the word choice is cringe inducing, the sentiment is spot-on.
What makes the “Hey, ladies goin’ to movies about ladies, who’da thunk it?” Thanksgiving weekend even more interesting is that it follows the big November 15 debut of The Best Man Holiday, which opened with $30 million (and has more than doubled that number in the two weeks since). Box-office watchers were stunned — most memorably USA Today, with its notorious and now-expunged “race-themed films” headline. I’ll confess to surprise at Holiday’s stellar opening, not because it’s “race-themed” (it’s not), but because it’s a sequel to a genuinely terrible 14-year-old movie whose posters look like an outtake from a magazine ad for Old Navy scarves. But its success shouldn’t have been a surprise, because it’s a film marketed to adult African-American audiences, one of the many demographics that mainstream Hollywood filmmaking and marketing has stopped even pretending to care about or cater to.
And that, as we all know, is because they’re so busy making movies for teenage boys. This is nothing new — they’ve been the target demo for decades. But over the last few years, the paradigm has subtly shifted; in the ‘80s and ‘90s, while those teenage-boy movies were a giant part of the financial equation, they didn’t completely dominate the movie-going landscape the way they do nowadays. Instead of making lots of mid-level movies and a few big-budget blockbusters, studios spend more money less frequently. To put it in casino parlance, they bet the house every time, and teenage boys (and the comic-book, race-car, and action sequels they patronize) are the safest bet.
But the results have turned decidedly sour. A sense of an “endless summer” has invaded the multiplex, with Ender’s Game and Thor: The Dark World in November, a Hobbit movie every December (presumably for the next several years), and a Chris Pine-fronted Jack Ryan reboot on deck for January. And the summer itself isn’t doing much better; a crowded seasonal release slate, with a new big-budget would-be blockbuster every weekend, combined with an uncommon glut of lousy flicks to create a real sense of “blockbuster fatigue” this year. Hollywood continues to bet big on the young, male audience, but that audience isn’t always going to show up, and isn’t guaranteed to keep doing so. (A veteran market researcher told The Wrap that “while movies are still the No. 1 entertainment choice for women, for men video games are right up there.” Oh, men.)
Make no mistake: Catching Fire and Frozen are blockbusters themselves, a sequel to a hit book adaptation and an expensive Disney animated musical adventure. But they’re at least looking to reach an audience that buys movie tickets and wants to see female heroes on screen, but seldom does. Everyone likes going to the movies, yet giant swathes of the audience have all but given up on the activity, because they’re so seldom offered films that present either a world they can relate to or protagonists they can identify with. African-American audiences are dying to see their stories told; they’re so desperate for representation that a preachy hack like Tyler Perry has built an empire on that vacuum. And women are so ready for films to consider them as something other than the The Girl that even a formulaic buddy cop movie like The Heat can feel like a radical departure.
Earlier this year, we talked about the Bridesmaids revolution that never happened, how that film’s success had made, it seemed, no impact on female representation in popular cinema. And the numbers remain frighteningly depressing; Catching Fire and Frozen are certainly the exceptions to the rule, just as Best Man Holiday is for African-American characters. But one thing is for certain — if these anomalies keep racking up big bucks, things could very well change, since box office grosses are the one message Hollywood can read loud and clear.