''Sex and the City'' a ''surprise'' hit? Only to people who refuse to get the message there's a universe of avid moviegoers who are not white males under 25, and who will pay to see a film that matters to them, even if nothing in it explodes

Note to Hollywood: Women like movies

Have you heard the biggest, most unexpected, most mind-boggling entertainment news of the summer? You know that Sex and the City movie? It’s a hit — no, not just a hit, a surprise hit! Surprise! A long-running TV series that generated hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue and an extremely loyal following turns out to be popular. Surprise! Women apparently can find a local multiplex without the assistance of men. Surprise! Sometimes two women, or three or four or five, will go to a movie together, even if they’re not lesbians. Surprise! Apparently the United States has a high number of women — women who like to go to movies about women! They are, as Sarah Jessica Parker succinctly put it in EW last week, ”hungry for cinema.”

Does this sound familiar? Didn’t we have this conversation with Hollywood already, on the occasion of the 1995 surprise hit Waiting to Exhale and the 2001 surprise hit The Princess Diaries and the 2002 surprise hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding and the 2006 surprise hit The Devil Wears Prada and the January surprise hit 27 Dresses? When industry professionals are rendered wide-eyed with shock by the same piece of information again and again, only two explanations (besides Botox) are possible: They’re either, for lack of a daintier term, stupid, or they’re deeply invested in pretending that the power of the female moviegoing audience is…surprising.

They’re not stupid. So what gives? ”Surprising,” in this context, connotes something that isn’t supposed to happen, something that, in a business that depends on predictability, may even be undesirable. But calling something a surprise is also a reminder that it constitutes an exception to the rule, and thus provides reassurance that the rule still exists.

And the rule is: Movies are made for kids and young men who like things that move fast and go boom! When they become hits, it’s not a surprise, it’s the plan. Studios spend so much money to make and sell those films that they clearly expect a major return on their investment. But if you’re not a kid or a young man, you are, in Hollywood parlance, part of a ”niche” audience. Here are some examples of who the movie industry considers ”niche”: women, obviously. African Americans. Anybody over 35. Christians. Latinos. Gay people. Asians. Anybody who reads movie reviews. Anybody who reads anything. Including this article. A ”niche,” by the way, is a term that means a recess in a wall. A small recess — like a spot for a knickknack. As far as Hollywood is concerned, you are either The Wall (big, broad, easy to find) or you are a Little Hole in The Wall (confusing, inessential, hard to target).

NEXT PAGE: Here’s a genuinely surprising piece of news: In a season expressly designed to appeal to the hordes of kids who are out of school, two of the kiddiest movies so far, Speed Racer and Prince Caspian, have fizzled.

It’s easier to make movies for The Wall. ”Surprise” hits like Sex and the City may be remarkably profitable since they’re often cheap to make, but the industry and much of the punditocracy still condescend to them: Those gals from the office, running off to their little movie, well, let ’em have their hen party. Or they’re simply dismissive: Whoa! What was that? Fifty-seven million dollars in three days? Just a little speed bump, nothing to see here, one-of-a-kind situation, how nice for them, let’s just keep moving and not look back.

If they did look back, they might see something unsettling: Those ”niches” are pretty big. And The Wall isn’t what it used to be.

Here’s a genuinely surprising piece of news about the summer of 2008: In a season expressly designed to appeal to the hordes of kids who are out of school, two of the kiddiest movies so far, Speed Racer and Prince Caspian, have fizzled. And next summer, and for several summers to come, there’ll be fewer kids going to the movies, because there’ll be fewer kids, period. Apparently (this is the U.S. Census talking), we had a mini-baby boom between about 1981 and 1995. And then came a dip — a substantial dip — in the kid population. In other words, that mammoth group of youngsters that has reliably fueled movie grosses for almost 15 years is now looking less kidlike: They’re between 13 and 27. And getting older. And looking for movies that appeal to them. And they’re really not going to like being called a niche.

In the mid-1960s, when Hollywood was aiming its films squarely at middle-aged white people, they commissioned a couple of studies to see just who was actually going to the movies. The answer was a bombshell: Nearly half the audience was under 25, and nearly a third, in major cities, was African-American. It took a few years and a handful of blockbusters for the movies themselves to change in response, but they did, to their great profit. Given the old Mark Twain maxim that history doesn’t repeat itself but it sometimes rhymes, in 2008 can Hollywood executives once again look at America and say, ”There’s an audience out there that we’re not serving, and they’re hungry”? If not, perhaps they can at least glance in the mirror and realize how silly that expression of permanent surprise is starting to look.

Sex and the City
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