Gillian Flynn
April 20, 2001 AT 04:00 AM EDT

In this corner stands a dieting, thirtysomething London gal with a bit of a drinking problem. And in the other: a cartoony trio of rockin’ grrrls who don kitty ears. That’s right, Easter weekend has emerged as the battle of the chick flicks. Universal’s Josie and the Pussycats will test the charms of Rachael Leigh Cook, Tara Reid, and Rosario Dawson (it opened with a head start April 11), while Renee Zellweger will uncork her British accent in Miramax’s Bridget Jones’s Diary — based on Helen Fielding’s best-seller.

Not too long ago, if you mentioned two female-driven films duking it out, you’d hear…yawns. Now the sound is ka-ching! Building on momentum from surprise 2000 hits like Charlie’s Angels ($125 million) and Miss Congeniality ($106 million) — not to mention Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon ($118 million), in which Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi outfought all the guys on screen — this year has been a box office boon for movies toplined by women.

While just six such films grossed more than $50 million during all of last year, 2001 has already seen three pass that mark. The trend kicked off in January when Julia Stiles boogied off with $89 million in Save the Last Dance, the second-highest-grossing film this year (after Hannibal). It was soon followed by hits like Jennifer Lopez’s The Wedding Planner and Julia Roberts’ The Mexican. Even the Sigourney Weaver-Jennifer Love Hewitt grifter comedy Heartbreakers has topped dude duds like Saving Silverman and Tomcats.

Why are so many ”ladies’ films” doing so well? Some point to the rise in the number of women heading major studios — Paramount chairman Sherry Lansing, Universal chairman Stacey Snider, Columbia chairman Amy Pascal, and Fox 2000 president Elizabeth Gabler — who reject the corsets and teary story lines of traditional chick flicks for material with less passive women’s roles. ”There’s a vast female audience eager to go to smart pictures,” says Gabler. ”They’re not weepies — they’re fun!”

In addition, there’s a mother lode of actresses who can open movies today. Beyond the juggernauts of Roberts and Sandra Bullock, ask any studio exec and you’ll get a healthy list of leading ladies with box office draw, including Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, Ashley Judd, and Lopez. Zellweger’s a force too, thanks to her Golden Globe win (for Nurse Betty) and juicy Bridget role. ”Renee is such a touching figure as well as funny and gutsy,” says Bridget screenwriter Richard Curtis. ”In well-chosen parts, Catherine Zeta-Jones could get there. She holds the screen,” adds Charlie’s Angels producer Leonard Goldberg. ”You’ll find more women doing it.”

And fewer men. Many onetime box office dominators are losing muscle. Sylvester Stallone hasn’t headlined a film that broke $50 million since 1994’s The Specialist. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s The 6th Day tapped out at $35 million last year. Even Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell combined couldn’t vault 3000 Miles to Graceland to the $20 million mark. Meanwhile, that next generation of matinee idol — including the likes of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon — is still striving for the blockbuster clout of Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks.

Luckily, male moviegoers aren’t totally bereft of films. The new breed of chick flick boasts (pardon the expression) broad appeal. The audience for 2000’s top three femme films skewed only slightly female: The tracking firm CinemaScore found that 46 percent of Charlie’s Angels ticket buyers had Y chromosomes. Why? “The guys like to look at the girls,” says Goldberg succinctly. “They like the action. They like to see the girls in action.” When Universal was developing Josie, production VP Allison Brecker wanted a certain jokiness that would appeal to fellas. “It’s funny and at times provocative,” she says. “And I think guys are going to like the rock music.” In short, a male-friendly approach, be it Angels‘ bombshells (literal and figurative) or Save the Last Dance‘s hip-hop sensibility, can offer a solid box office boost.

The biggest boost may come as actresses invade the lucrative action-hero arena, previously a no-woman’s zone (with occasional gate-crashers like Alien‘s Weaver and Terminator‘s Linda Hamilton). One striking switch in the new distaff action stars: Women are punching and jabbing from the get-go. Angelina Jolie, who kick-starts her own franchise as rugged Lara Croft in Paramount’s June film Tomb Raider, likes the gutsier female-movie prototype. “This film is about being active with life, not having it be about yourself and your problems and your worries,” says Jolie. “It’s about getting out there in the world. I like [Lara]. She’s strong and she’s moral and she’s got a good sense of fun.”

Similarly, Judd is getting her claws out to play Warner Bros.’ Catwoman in a new Batman spin-off franchise, Barrymore may space out in a Barbarella remake at Fox, and Bullock has been mentioned for Wonder Woman, to be produced by Goldberg and Joel Silver at Warner Bros.

“If you come with a good, quality film, the audiences are not going to sit there and go, ‘Where are the guys?'” says Yeoh, who this summer will shoot another female-driven action film, The Touch, produced by her own Mythical Films. “I hope for my sake, and actresses all around, there will be more movies in this trend. Because girls can do it. It doesn’t have to be about the guys all the time.” Amen, sister.

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