In this mad, mad world of ours, there are only a few things that we can all agree upon—the sky is blue, the internet cat video pheonomena is an excellent waste of time, and the film Bridesmaids was one of the biggest hits of 2011. It earned a total domestic gross of $169,106,725, was nominated for an Oscar for best original screenplay, and made stars out of actors Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, and Rebel Wilson.
But it was more than just another surprise summer blockbuster. Bridesmaids was widely considered a watershed moment for women's comedy—going to a screening over opening weekend was presented as a social responsibility, and the film's success was considered proof that a raucous film about women's friendships could exceed everyone's financial expectations. As long-time Hollywood producer Lynda Obst said in an interview with Salon, the film "had the biggest impact of any women's movie that I can remember in my career."
According to a June 2011 Hollywood Reporter article, written by Little Miss Sunshine producer David T. Friendly, studios scrambled for their own female-focused comedies in the wake of Bridesmaids. The so-called "Bridesmaids effect"—the search for the next R-rated women's ensemble comedy—was a popular topic in the months that followed, with Indiewire, Business Insider, Salon (twice in July alone), and Studio Magazine all speculating on whether it would now be easier for women to make raunchy, dirty (and more honest) comedies within Hollywood's studio system.
The ramifications of Bridesmaids' success were immediate—the women who wrote the scripts for Bachelorette and Pitch Perfect told a reporter that the success of Bridesmaids made it easier for their movies to get made.
But the predicted boom in raunchy female buddy comedies didn't materialize last summer (that season's most Bridesmaids-like release, the indie comedy For a Good Time, Call…, performed weakly at the box office). Instead, two big female-focused comedies hit theaters in fall 2012, when the film Bachelorette was promoted as the heiress to Bridesmaids's throne.
Bachelorette—about a group of emotionally damaged female friends who gather for a wedding—was probably tonally closer to Glengarry Glen Ross than Bridesmaids, but that didn't keep headlines like "Bachelorette (Sort of) Like Bridesmaids" and "Spoiler Alert: Bachelorette Has Nothing to Do with Bridesmaids" from topping almost all of its reviews. Despite a mostly positive critical reception and a #1 spot on iTunes for its VOD release, the film was not a blockbuster. Pitch Perfect—which grossed over $62 million domestically during its own fall 2012 release—was a surprise hit that even spawned a top Billboard song. But though the film was green-lit based in the post-Bridesmaids gold rush, it was a much tamer, PG-13 affair, and it fit nicely into the well-established genre of women's musical comedies.
This all begs the question: what exactly does it mean to deliver on the promise of Bridesmaids? Does it mean bigger budgets for mainstream, non-romantic comedies with female leads? Or does it embracing more unknown female actors for lead roles in comedies? Or utilizing the kind of plots that used to be considered off-limits for women's comedies? This summer brings high-profile examples of all three.
June's buddy-cop comedy The Heat is the summer's biggest hope for a female-focused comedy blockbuster. This big studio-financed picture pairs Melissa McCarthy and co-star Sandra Bullock with Bridesmaids director Paul Feig. It's not McCarthy's first starring role since Bridesmaids—that would be this winter's horrible but profitable Identity Thief—but it's her first starring role since then in a film that actually looks good. The trailer's vibe sells The Heat in spirit of Bridesmaids—and shouts out Feig's connection to that film. But really, this film represents that now the "raucous, wacky comedy about female friendship, not romance" film is an acceptable vehicle for a mega-star like Bullock, a feat that was fairly unimaginable pre-Bridesmaids.
One of the striking elements of Bridesmaids' success was that its cast was made up of relative unknowns, familiar only to devoted comedy fans. In this respect, this summer's The To Do List, a raunchy loss-of-virginity comedy written and directed by Maggie Carey and starring Aubrey Plaza, is the next film up to bat. The male loss of virginity comedy—from 1982's Porky's and The Last American Virgin to 2007's Superbad—has been a film staple for decades, but this film is one of the first female virginity comedies to see broad release.
Though The To Do List was shot on a small $1.2 million budget with indie financing, its been given a big push by CBS Films, which picked it up and moved up its release date to July 26 (after an originally planned Valentine's Day release). Films anticipated to do well financially are often pushed to a summer release to capitalize on positive early word of mouth (not to mention the media frenzy after star Plaza jumped the stage during Will Ferrell's MTV Movie Award acceptance speech earlier this year, with the film's promo tag written in marker across her chest). If Bridesmaids's impact can be felt anywhere, it is most acutely here, in the expectation that this film just might be a hit.
The success of Bridesmaids can also be felt in the release and promotion of films female-focused comedies that, one way or another, fall outside of the usual 'comfort zone' of popular cinema.
This certainly seems to be the case with the upcoming release of Susan Seidelman's The Hot Flashes. Starring Brooke Shields, Darryl Hannah, Camryn Manheim, and Wanda Sykes as a group of middle-aged former high school basketball stars who enter a charity basketball game to keep their local breast cancer clinic in business, The Hot Flashes is a standard "old pros show the young whipper-snappers that they still got it" yarn.
Yet it is also the first film by Seidelman (best known for 1985's Desperately Seeking Susan) to see anything close to broad release since 1989's She-Devil. Though the film is not a studio picture—it was independently financed, primarily by female Silicon Valley executives—the fact that theaters in at least 12 cities are taking a chance on an indie film the focuses on the friendships between older women, by a director whose work has vanished from the popular landscape for the past two decades, is a development that I find difficult to not tie to Bridesmaids.
Make no mistake about all of this: male actors, writers, directors, and characters still dominate the top summer blockbusters, film franchises, and movies in general.
And yes, the studio mania for "the next Bridesmaids" seems on many levels to simply be a search for novelty—this new demand for female-focused comedies hasn't done much to increase the diversity of women considered bankable comedy leads (all leads in the films listed above are white and almost all are thin), nor expand the scope of the stories considered acceptable: most of these films seem to focus on middle-to-upper class women with career and hetero dating problems. So, Bridesmaids has hardly been a potion to completely transform how women are treated in Hollywood.
But I do believe that the success of Bridesmaids has encouraged studios and distributors to take a "risk" on comedies focusing on female friendships, sexuality, or raunchy jokes, with the knowledge that viewers will come out in droves for the right one.
The biggest pay-off of the "Bridesmaids effect" so far is that people want to see movies featuring the stars of Bridesmaids. But it's easy to forget how far we've come in a relatively short period of time. Do you remember an early poster for Bridesmaids that ran with the headline "Chick flicks don't have to suck!" (a quote from a Movieline review)? Maybe I'm a little too optimistic, but the idea that anyone would think to put out a movie poster like that now seems positively quaint to me.
Read this whole blog series about comedy and feminism!