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It is not an easy thing to be a surprise hit these days. The Iron Man 3's and Avengers's of the world come with months and months of buzz-building and tracking and anticipation, to the point that when the movies actually come to theaters, the studios know by Friday morning what Monday morning's box office will tell them.
And yet, this weekend we had The Great Gatsby, a lavish, PG-13 literary adaptation that cost at least $150 million to make (some say $200 million) and pulled off $51 million at the American box office this weekend, exceeding even the studio's most optimistic predictions. While the teenage boys who are normally at the center of every marketing campaign rushed off to see Iron Man 3, older audiences, and especially women, flocked to Gatsby-- numbers at Forbes says that 59% of the audiences were female, and 69% of them were over the age of 25.
That's not entirely surprising, of course-- marketing tie-ins for The Great Gatsby have been through Brooks Brothers and Tiffany's, not exactly brands beloved by high school and college kids. The emphasis in ads on the amazing costumes and heartbreaking romance of the novel were inevitably going to draw in more women, as was the promise of seeing Leonardo DiCaprio reunited with Baz Luhrmann, who put him in his ultimate romantic lead role with Romeo + Juliet (women old enough to have swooned for that film back in 1996 are now, inevitably, over the age of 25). But what's surprising is just how much of that older, female audience turned out to support a very long, very expensive, very over-the-top film not all that much unlike Luhrmann's last film Australia, a brutal flop here in the United States.
This is a story that gets told over and over again at the box office-- women, especially older women, are undervalued by Hollywood, so when a movie targets them they will show up in droves. And it's a story that The Great Gatsby's distributor Warner Bros. has come to understand extremely well. Last year they took a gamble on Steven Soderbergh's male stripper drama Magic Mike, marketed the hell out of it, and made a $113 million hit off a film that Soderbergh and Channing Tatum funded themselves for $16 million. Warner Bros. built a franchise out of two Sex and the City movies, one of which was mediocre and one of which was abysmal, but both of which tapped into one of very, very few franchises with primarily female audiences. And, god help them, they were responsible for both Valentine's Day and New Year's Eve, another female-driven franchise of sorts that basically applied the Avengers logic to a rom-com: slap as many big names together as possible and watch the cash roll in.
What's the common denominator here? Same as it is for all the male-driven summer hits: spectacle. Virtually every summer movie promises essentially the same thing, an opportunity to witness something on the big screen that exceeds anything that exists in your normal life. That can be the robot suits of Iron Man 3, the swinging heroism of The Amazing Spider-Man, the inventive effects of Inception… or the endless sequins of The Great Gatsby. What Gatsby and Magic Mike and the Sex and the City movies offer is the kind of spectacle that women are often drawn to-- clothes, scenery, attractive men, music, or in the case of Gatsby, a combination of all of the above. The chaotic, glittering ads for The Great Gatsby are effectively the same as the ones for Iron Man 3, except that instead of explosions and lingering shots of Tony Stark's technology, we get confetti and lingering shots of sequined flapper dresses.
It's a long-known fact that women like the Iron Man's and Spider-Man's of the world nearly as much as the men do, and that women will go see movies aimed primarily toward men far more often than men will do the reverse. And Gatsby is far, far from the first movie to apply the spectacle of film toward things that largely appeal to women-- every glittering, white-carpeted apartment in rom-coms of the 30s and 40s will tell you that much. But seeing spectacle for women produced on this large a scale is encouraging in its own way, a promise that studios aren't just relying on cheaper films like Bridesmaids or The Vow to get women in theaters. Both Alice in Wonderland and Oz The Great And Powerful were expensive films with a majority female audience, but they were aimed at kids too. The Great Gatsby is the first movie since Sex and the City 2 that says that you can spend a lot of money, market hard to mostly women, and make it worth your while. The fact that it's infinitely better than Sex and the City 2 isn't a bad bonus.
With The Hunger Games: Catching Fire coming to theaters this fall and promoting its lavish costumes far more than the action, we may see this brand of female-targeted spectacle become even more mainstream. Even if it doesn't, The Great Gatsby marks an important benchmark in the long, slow march of getting studios to come up with anything other than exhausted rom-coms to draw in female audiences. The Great Gatsby is as different from Bridesmaids as The Expendables was from Ted, and it proves that surprise hits driven by women can be as diverse as surprise hits driven by men. As women continue to struggle to be seen by studios as anything other than a monolithic, Josh Duhamel-loving audience, that's a surprisingly important bit of progress.