The Bridesmaids effect—a term that’s been tossed around since the 2011 film earned $300 million worldwide and Hollywood realized there’s a market for female-driven comedies—will actually go into effect this summer. Four shiny, big-budget studio comedies starring women are being released smack in the middle of summer movie season: Hot Pursuit (May 8), the Reese Witherspoon–Sofia Vergara buddy comedy; Pitch Perfect 2 (May 15) with Rebel Wilson and Anna Kendrick; Spy (June 5), led by Melissa McCarthy and Rose Byrne; and Trainwreck (July 17), Amy Schumer’s very personal (and filthy) flick.
“It’s an amazing sign of progress, but I think it feels a little silly to be celebrating it,” says Spy director Paul Feig, who also directed Bridesmaids. “It’s good, but it’s not enough. And this should have happened years and years and years ago.”
But years and years and years ago, female-led comedies were the norm. Back when Bill Clinton was president, rom-coms starring Julia Roberts (Runaway Bride), Meg Ryan (Sleepless in Seattle), and Cameron Diaz (There’s Something About Mary) ruled the box office. Around 2000, with the rise of the comic-book film, Hollywood’s interests shifted away from bankable movie stars and toward costumed heroes—the sorts of brand-name properties that proved to be box office Teflon. After the DVD market tanked in 2009, studios could rely on these films to appeal to international audiences, not to mention toy-happy younger males likely to be wowed by explosive special effects. Women were relegated to the role of the girlfriend, the sidekick, the chaperone.
In the past decade, one-off hits started to disprove that idea, from Sex and the City in 2008 to the Sandra Bullock film The Proposal in 2009. But it wasn’t until Bridesmaids that Hollywood began rethinking its strategy. “Bridesmaids broke the mold,” says Universal Pictures chairman Donna Langley. “It took a familiar paradigm—the wedding comedy—and turned it on its ear. It created very honest, very contemporary characters that women around the world related to … and it emboldened talent to start writing more of those parts and emboldened studios to go for it a bit more, knowing there is a hungry demographic out there.” The question now is, do these four femme comedies represent a mini-trend—one that will dissipate as quickly as it began—or are we at the dawn of a new era?
“It’s a great time for talented women,” says veteran comedy producer and Trainwreck director Judd Apatow. “Oddly, there are profit motives in doing groundbreaking material. It isn’t like the old days.” He hopes this crop of films will inspire young comedians with a point of view. “We don’t have to inspire everyone, just the Amy Schumers of the world. [They need to know that] it’s worth their time to sit alone in a room and try to get that ink down on paper. Because it can get made if they do a good job.”
Back in 2011, when Schumer was still an up-and-comer, she rode her bike to the IFC Center in Manhattan to see Bridesmaids with her pal, comedian Nikki Glaser. It was a pivotal moment. “It was just the funniest thing. And it was women being portrayed as human beings, not like these caricatures we’ve seen,” Schumer says. “I think we both felt very empowered leaving there…. Bridesmaids made [all this] feel possible.”
Despite the advances, many around town still feel that today’s risk-averse environment in Hollywood keeps women’s voices down. “I wish there was a common thread to these movies,” says one veteran talent manager. “But Judd is doing what he does, which is working with people with a point of view. Melissa [McCarthy] is the biggest female comedy star out there right now, so of course she’s just going to keep cranking them out. I think it’s a perfect storm that it’s all happening in the same summer, but I can’t say it’s because women films are now being taken seriously.”
But upcoming projects signal that this summer may be the new normal. Feig is in preproduction on an all-female Ghostbusters with McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, and Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones attached. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have teamed up for this winter’s dysfunctional-family comedy Sisters. The writing duo behind Comedy Central’s hit Broad City are in talks to pen a female-centric 21 Jump Street, and Apatow’s wife, Leslie Mann, is prepping to star in a comedy about the challenges of motherhood from the writers of The Hangover. Schumer herself is enjoying her own cultural moment as her sketch-comedy show, Inside Amy Schumer, generates viral watercooler chatter. Early reviews of Trainwreck predict a hit.
“I’m having such a Cinderella experience,” says Schumer. “Actually, why did I say that? What now? I get to clean up cinders? No, this is not a Cinderella story. I don’t even know what that means.”
In this new reality of comedies led by women, antiquated fairy tales don’t seem to have a place.