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'Sex' rules: Is it just an exception?

Carrie Rickey
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

When Warner Bros. exec Jeff Goldstein went to bed Sunday night he was ecstatic about the record-breaking $55.7 weekend box office for "Sex and the City."

And Monday morning, when he found that the final tally was actually $57.3 million, he told his wife, "I guess we had more `Sex' yesterday than I thought."

"Unprecedented" is the word that Dan Fellman, Warners president of domestic marketing, is using to describe the success of the film, which took the record for the top-grossing first weekend for an R-rated comedy.

"Sex" had the fifth-best opening weekend for an R-rated movie and is the only film in that quintet, which includes "The Matrix Reloaded" and "300," to have a female lead. (Yes, Hollywood has categories to fit all occasions.) This is significant because last year, only five of the 50 top-grossing movies starred or were focused on women.

And it explains why last week, skeptics from Hollywood, Calif., to Hollywood, Fla., were betting that "SATC" would tank. Typical was the hater who complained to the Defamer Web site, "Who wants to see a movie about plow donkeys in lipstick?"

Roughly eight million moviegoers did (the average price of a movie ticket in the United States is $7), and they weren't exclusively female. According to exit polls, the Friday audiences were 85 percent femme, Saturday's 75 percent. While the Sunday figures have yet to be demographically crunched, Fellman and Goldstein expect the male/female ratio to become less skewed in the coming weeks.

Fellman says it's too early to say what lessons can be learned from this, but he's encouraged that "SATC" suggests that women can create a frenzy for a movie just as "we are accustomed to seeing in boys and men."

As studio execs digest the news and mull over "What Does It All Mean?" the Hollywood grapevine is humming. It's ironic that this breakout success is coming to Warners, which specializes in muscular hits such as "Batman," "300" and "Matrix."

"I hope that the overwhelming and unexpected success of `Sex and the City' will give Hollywood the permission to look at the women's audience differently," Melissa Silverstein, who writes the "Women & Hollywood" blog for the Huffington Post Web site, said in an e-mail.

Like some other female analysts, Silverstein (whose blog is at www.womenandhollywood.blogspot.com) sees an apparent double standard. While observers worried last week whether men would go to a movie starring four women in their 40s and beyond, "Do you remember anyone wringing their hands about `Wild Hogs,' about four aging guys?"

"It would be sad if the Hollywood banking machine sees `Sex and the City' as an anomaly," says Terry Lawler, executive director of New York Women in Film and Television. "That's happened before, with `My Big Fat Greek Wedding,' `Daughters of the Dust,' `Something's Gotta Give' and `The Devil Wears Prada.'" These movies, Lawler says, "tend to be seen as exceptions rather than the rule, and no studios learn the lesson that there's an underserved audience out there."

And for one Hollywood analyst who called "SATC's" opening weekend "historic," predicting that it would be "the most popular female-driven film ever," a little history is in order. Back in the days before Hollywood divided audiences into male/female/under 30/ over 30, all movies were marketed to a general audience. Adjusted for inflation, two of the top three films of all time are female-driven: "Gone With the Wind" (No. 1) and "The Sound of Music" (No. 3).

"The Devil Wears Prada," the 2006 hit that scored a surprising $124 million at the domestic box office, made $201 million overseas. Which suggests that foreign moviegoers aren't as divided by gender as marketers seem to think the American audience is.

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