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This Chick’s Flicks: How to Make a “Successful” Chick Flick

Dear Readers,

They say that little girls are made of “sugar and spice, and everything nice.” Assuming that grown-up women are made of the same, at least to some extent, I wonder: Do women also look for and/or need these qualities in our movies? In other words, what ingredients does the recipe for a “successful” chick flick call for?

First, we’ll need a working definition of “successful.” I’ve chosen to follow the well-known Jerry Maguire adage, “Show me the money!”, and define “success” solely in monetary terms.

Hence, “success” (S) will be calculated (with numbers courtesy of Box Office Mojo and IMDb) by comparing a movie’s Domestic Total Gross (DTG) to its Production Budget (PB). I’ve calculated Success in two ways: (1) the Success Percentage [S(%)], which divides the DTG by the PB, to show what percent of the movie’s PB it made back in its DTG; and (2) the Success Amount [S($)], which subtracts the PB from the DTG, to show how much the movie grossed after making back its PB. In more visual terms:

S(%) = DTG ÷ PB

S($) = DTG − PB

Now that we have defined “successful,” let’s name the players. There have been many “successful” chick flicks over the years, and I looked at the numbers for more than twenty (20) movies while researching. Lest our current endeavor become unmanageable, I’m going to stick with seven (7). The lucky seven are (in alphabetical order):

1. Bridesmaids (2011, R, Universal): $32.5M (PB); $169+M (DTG)

●  S(%) = 520.3%; S($) = $136.5+M

2. Bring It On (2000, PG-13, Universal): $28M (PB); $68+M (DTG)

●  S(%) = 244.2%; S($) = $40+M

3. Clueless (1995, PG-13, Paramount): $12M (PB); $56.5+M (DTG)

●  S(%) = 471.1%; S($) = $44.5+M

4. The Devil Wears Prada (2006, PG-13, Fox): $35M (PB); $124.5+M (DTG)

●  S(%) = 356.4%; S($) = $89.5+M

5. Mean Girls (2004, PG-13, Paramount): $17M (PB); $86+M (DTG)

●  S(%) = 506.2%; S($) = $69+M

6. Pretty Woman (1990, R, Buena Vista): $14M (PB); $178+M (DTG)

●  S(%) = 1,274.3%; S($) = $164+M

7. She’s All That (1999, PG-13, Miramax): $10M (PB); $63+M (DTG)

●  S(%) = 633.2%; S($) = $53+M

The numbers themselves are not important for purposes of this discussion. I’ve included them merely to demonstrate that there are different ways of looking at and analyzing monetary success.

Still with me? Great.

Through repeated viewings and careful analysis of the lucky seven above, I have been able to isolate six (6) characteristics common to all, and thus a recipe for a “successful” chick flick…

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1. A Common Life Experience.

I’ve written about this before, and I think it’s somewhat self-explanatory, so I won’t linger too long here. When a chick flick’s characters face and overcome a common, real-life obstacle, the audience forms an emotional connection with the characters based on a sense of shared experience.

READ || This Chick’s Flicks: Female Friendships in FOR A GOOD TIME, CALL & BACHELORETTE

Like the protagonists of the lucky seven, many of us have–or, as of the not-too-distant-future, will have–survived high school (CluelessMean GirlsShe’s All That), played a team sport and/or performed (Bring It On), searched for our first ‘real’ job (The Devil Wears Prada), fallen in love–perhaps even against our better judgment (Pretty Woman), and figured out how to deal when changes in friends’ lives call our own life into question (Bridesmaids).

These empathetic connections make it easier to enjoy a chick flick on first viewing, and more likely that us girls will return to watch again when we’re struggling with something similar in reality or just feeling nostalgic.

READ || This Chick’s Flicks: 10 YEARS’ Rules for Reunions

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2. Casting, Casting, Casting.

Casting well-known names in primary roles, and recognizable supporting players, appears to be key to a chick flick’s success. I know, I know…this is completely dismissive of new talent, some of whom have shocked-and-awed us right out of the gate with their performances in chick flicks. Cut me a little slack here…I’m already trying to change the way you all think about chick flicks generally, and I simply can’t fight city hall on all fronts simultaneously.

To be fair, casting a teen-centric chick flick–as opposed to one about grown-ups–may be more of a crapshoot, because a younger cast *typically* has less experience (and is less well-known) than actors who have been around the block a few times. But, when done well, teen casting can make all the difference to a chick flick’s box office numbers and longevity.

For example, the cast of She’s All That–which includes Freddie Prinze Jr.Rachael Leigh Cook, Paul WalkerAnna Paquin, Kieran Culkin, and Gabrielle Union, among many others–may have been much less recognizable in 1999 than today, but was hardly unknown even then. Prinze had appeared in the first two I Know What You Did Last Summer installments, Walker had large roles in Pleasantville (1998) and Varsity Blues (released two weeks before She’s All That), Paquin won an Oscar for her performance in The Piano (1993), Culkin had made his bones in the Home Alone and Father of the Bride franchises, and Union had a number of TV appearances under her belt, plus a supporting role in 10 Things I Hate About You, released two months later.

But, some of you Readers closer in age to me than my mother, might argue: What about Pretty Woman, the most successful of the lucky seven, often touted as the movie that made Julia Roberts a household name? Aren’t I banking my theory on hindsight here?

In fact, Roberts’ co-star, Richard Gere, was already a name by 1990, having had starring roles in Days of Heaven (1978), American Gigolo (1980), and An Officer and a Gentleman (1982). And Roberts was hardly a silver screen virgin herself. With major roles in Mystic Pizza (1988) and Steel Magnolias (1989), Roberts had some recent and decent chick flick street cred behind her.

(P.S. See both of these Julia Roberts movies…but bring many tissues for the latter.)

(P.P.S. Food for thought: Gere went from playing a gigolo (a.k.a. a hooker) in 1980, to playing someone who hires a hooker in 1990. Oh the difference a decade can make….)

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3. Bling-Bling.

Fashion great Coco Chanel once said: “Dress shabbily and they remember the dress; dress impeccably and they remember the woman.” Now, far be it from me to assume that I know better on any matter relating to fashion, but I’m not entirely certain that this real-life truism also governs the ladies of chick flicks.

In season 6 of Sex and the City, when Smith goes on TRL (and Carrie gets dumped by a Post-It Note / arrested for smokin’ a doobie), Samantha articulates a very important principle of modern celebrity idolatry. Insisting that Smith pair his label-less t-shirt and jeans with the season’s hottest Dior sunglasses, she tells him: “It’s MTV. If you’re not wearing something the kids can’t afford, how will they know to look up to you?”

It is this rule, I think, that governs chick flicks. How many of us can watch Pretty Woman without wishing that we too could enjoy a full-day Rodeo Drive shopping spree? Or The Devil Wears Prada without feeling insanely jealous that Andy (Anne Hathaway) effectively does her shopping in the Vogue closet?

Obviously, we want heroines who shine on the basis of their character…but wrapping them in a pretty Chanel or Dior bow never hurt anybody.

Plus, fashion labels may be willing to partner with the movie or *gasp* donate clothing or accessories for production in order to increase brand exposure. After all, tying your brand to an iconic and beloved chick flick leading lady can hardly be bad for sales.

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4. Quotability.

A personal favorite of mine, the importance of this characteristic cannot be underestimated.

Quotability means two things: (1) the ease of grabbing and reiterating one-liners or short interchanges from a movie’s script; and (2) the frequency with which those lines are recognized by others in the know.

Clueless includes some, like, excellently pertinent examples of easily-repeatable one-liners, usually spoken by Cher (Alicia Silverstone), such as: “That was way harsh, Tai.” and “Do you prefer ‘fashion victim’ or ‘ensembly challenged’?” Clueless can also boast quotable multi-character exchanges, à la this short one between Cher and Josh (Paul Rudd)…

Cher: I want to do something for humanity.
Josh: How about sterilization?

…and this longer interchange between Dionne (Stacey Dash) and Murray (Donald Faison)…

Murray: Woman, lend me fi’ dollas.
Dionne: Murray, I have asked you repeatedly not to call me “woman”.
Murray: Excuse me, “Ms. Dionne.” 
Dionne: Thank you.
Murray: Okay, but, street slang is an increasingly valid form of expression. Most of the feminine pronouns do have mocking, but not necessarily in misogynistic undertones.

Mean Girls also goes above and beyond in the quotability department. In addition to many, many others, I’m fond of Janis (Lizzy Caplan) and Damian’s (Daniel Franzese) introductory explanation of The Plastics’ bios…

Janis: Gretchen Wieners knows everybody’s business, she knows everything about everyone.
Damian: That’s why her hair is so big, it’s full of secrets.

…and let’s not forget this somewhat disturbing, yet hilarious, Halloween party moment between Karen (Amanda Seyfried) and Gretchen (Lacey Chabert)…

Karen: So, you have your cousins, and then you have your first cousins, and then you have your second cousins…
Gretchen: No, honey, uh-uh.
Karen: That’s not right, is it?
Gretchen: That is so not right.

A chick flick that is easily quotable effectively creates its own language. This lingo is then ripe for adoption by a loyal band of followers, who will enthusiastically use it as they seek out fellow compatriots.

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5. A Dash of Naughtiness.

I think even the most reserved among us like to be a little bit naughty from time to time. And we are certainly willing to be more risqué in the humor we enjoy than in our personal actions…especially since every Tom, Dick, and Harry now have camera phones and are ready, willing, and able to use them.

In the lucky seven, we have a successful business man who hires a hooker to be his “beck-and-call girl” for a week of business functions (Pretty Woman…giving new meaning to the “CEO and Office Ho” party theme), a male cheerleader whose digits occasionally “slip” while lifting a particular teammate (Bring It On), and a gaggle of rowdy women who literally crap all over themselves and are removed from an airplane for drunk and disorderly conduct (Bridesmaids).

Successful chick flicks have long recognized our yen for naughtiness and preference for voyeurism over participation, and use this knowledge to their advantage by giving us a little somethin’-somethin’ when the moment is right.

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6. “Envy-ability.”

A chick flick will have a better chance of being successful if it understands the following: the audience does not merely have to like the movie’s characters; it needs to envy them in some capacity.

Women are a strange breed in that most of us hate that we secretly love things we can’t have or are jealous of. We wish it weren’t so, but we’ll spend hours on Google longingly staring at pictures of Carrie Bradshaw’s bejeweled indigo Manolo Blahniks, or press our noses up against the window of our local Hermès for a glimpse of the unobtainable Birkin bag in our favorite color and size. We’ll discretely but very actively people-watch a couple on a date or walking hand-in-hand down the street, wishing we could trade places with one person or the other. We can’t help it–we get jealous of people and things, and long desperately for the happiness we’re convinced those people and things would add to our lives.

The same goes for chick flicks. Who among us would turn down a night of drunken hilarity with the ladies of Bridesmaids–so long as *we* got to pick the restaurant/bar? Which of us would not step/knock over any number of our besties for the chance to slow dance with Freddie Prinze Jr. in a backyard illuminated by Christmas lights (She’s All That)? Who wouldn’t want to be rescued by a handsome millionaire who loves us despite our past (Pretty Woman)?

The more we want to be a particular chick flick character, the more likely we are to tell our friends to see the movie and to continue re-watching the movie over time, to share in the desired experience in the only way available to us.

. . .

To be perfectly honest, dear Readers, making a “successful” chick flick is not easy or simple in the least. It requires some mysterious mix of skill, sincerity, talent, and luck that I only wish I could quantify and articulate for you.

But, following the recipe outlined above may be a good step in the right direction for industry insiders looking to write, develop, or produce a chick flick, and also for those of us on the outside looking in, attempting to predict whether the chick flick we just saw a trailer for will ultimately be “successful.”

Oh, you want a prediction from me? Well, you ask for it, you got it.

Based solely on the trailers/clips currently available (sorry Readers, no spoilers here!), I think Pitch Perfect has the potential to be 2012’s most “successful” chick flick. It’s got a common experience (college, freshman year, finding yourself/your passion), cast (Anna KendrickBrittany SnowRebel WilsonAnna CampElizabeth Banks, etc. etc.), quotability (Aubrey (Camp): “You call yourself ‘Fat Amy’?” / Fat Amy (Wilson): “Yeah, so twig bitches like you don’t do it behind my back.”), naughtiness (see quotability), and envy-ability (I sure as heck can’t sing like that…but I sure wish I could) in the bag. It may be somewhat weak in bling-bling–but then again, maybe the most important accessory the characters carry is the confidence necessary to, as Chloe (Snow) explains, “sing songs without any instruments. . . . all from our mouths.” And, if that doesn’t work for you, then what about those cool-and-comfy looking Treblemakers hoodies? I know I totally want one. Seriously.

Agree? Disagree? Have a different prediction you’d like to share? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Want more chick flicks?

First, check out previous This Chick’s Flicks pieces.

Then, stay tuned to Screen Invasion for This Chick’s Flicks posts on chick flicks of now and then.

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Follow Sarah Katz on Twitter (@sarahdkatz) for daily Chick Flick recommendations (or tweet her for more suggestions), and stay tuned to Screen Invasion via Twitter (@ScreenInvasion) and Facebook.

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Pretty Woman photo: © 1990 Touchstone Pictures. | This Chick’s Flicks logo: © 2012 Kristal Bailey. | She’s All That photo: © 1999 – Miramax. | The Devil Wears Prada photos: © 2006 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved. | Clueless photo: © 1995-Paramount Pictures-All rights reserved. | Bridesmaids photo: © 2011 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. | Pitch Perfect photo: © 2012 – Universal Pictures.

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The Author

Sarah Katz

Sarah Katz

Born-and-bred New Yorker. Lifelong film & TV lover—from chick flicks, rom-coms, rom-droms, rom-drams, and tweentertainment, to Shakespeare, period pieces, James Bond, fairy tales, and mafia movies.