Movie Article

Women on Top

Why the chick flick has more muscle than you think -- Studios and young actresses find a dream audience in the girl-power generation that made films like ''Legally Blonde'' a hit

BOX OFFICE BRUISER Witherspoon's salary skyrocketed after the success of the first ''Legally Blonde''
Image credit: Reese Witherspoon Illustration by Kirsten Ulve
BOX OFFICE BRUISER Witherspoon's salary skyrocketed after the success of the first ''Legally Blonde''

She's gorgeous, fabulously blond, and clad in quilted pink Tocca and sky-high Jimmy Choos. He's sporting distressed leather, badass Sama shades, and quite frankly, not the best skin. Who will win the box office battle? Well, it's not like ''Legally Blonde 2'''s Elle Woods would ever willingly rub her exfoliated elbows with ''T3'''s Terminator, but their films are facing off on July 4 weekend. And while no one is claiming Bruiser will trump the rise of the machines, for once the advantage doesn't automatically fall to the picture catering to the excitable teenage boys of summer. In the wake of films like ''Bring It On'' (which grossed $68 million), ''How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days'' ($106 million), ''Charlie's Angels'' ($125 million), ''Bridget Jones's Diary'' ($72 million), and ''The Princess Diaries'' ($108 million), Hollywood appears to have finally fully embraced the so-called chick flick.

''All stigma goes away when movies are very, very successful,'' says Chris McGurk, vice chairman and COO of MGM, the studio behind the $97 million-and-counting ''Legally Blonde'' franchise. ''The studios have found that there is a very strong market for movies that feature young women in roles that are empowering.'' Additionally, '''Blonde' proved that you can have an enormously successful movie that primarily appealed to [young women].''

''The conventional wisdom used to be that girls will go to boy movies but boys won't go to girl movies, so studios tended to make boy movies and tried to get both audiences,'' says Fox Searchlight marketing prez Nancy Utley, who coordinated the campaign for jockette indie hit ''Bend It Like Beckham.'' ''But the success of 'Legally Blonde' and female titles shows that when girls feel a connection to a movie they come out in droves. It's a very viable audience.''

Not to mention a tech-savvy audience that offers a hidden, cost-saving advantage to smaller studios: ''The immediate culture that kids live in in terms of e-mailing each other enables word of mouth to travel faster than it used to,'' says Utley, who relied heavily on grassroots marketing to sell ''Beckham,'' which has thus far grossed $24 million, with foreign accents and no stars.

Fortunately, there's plenty worth IM-ing about. Unlike the preceding generation -- whose pickin's were pretty much limited to John Hughes flicks like ''Pretty in Pink'' -- today's young female demo (including the increasingly critical tweens, ages 8 through 13) has many more choices. ''These girls have grown up with girl power -- it's something they take for granted. So it only makes sense to them to see women in film who are strong and reflect the kind of image they have of themselves,'' says Catherine Stellin, research and marketing director for Youth Intelligence, which tracks pop-culture trends.

In other words, today's chicks aren't waiting to be asked to the prom, they're throwing the proms, providing the talent that drives these new flicks, on screen and off. ''There's a lot more women actors who are bankable,'' says Erica Huggins, who produced the upcoming ''How to Deal,'' a movie also directed by a woman, Clare Kilner. ''You have Hilary Duff, Kate Hudson, [Deal star] Mandy Moore, Amanda Bynes. I don't remember that we've had that much talent at that age prior to this past year.'' Indeed, Duff and Moore are already signed up for other chick flicks, and even the ubiquitous Olsen twins have a film in the offing.

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