Is Hollywood Tired Of Women???

Sigourney Weaver is back, chiselled and lovely and determined as ever: a warrior woman to build a movie around. Sadly, Weaver's is only a brief appearance, fighting off aliens in an ad for a pay TV service.

She is no less an actor than she ever was, but much less a star. Her last successful leading role was in 2001. The last time she was the star, the very reason for a film's existence, was 10 years ago, in the inevitable fourth instalment of the Aliens franchise.

In the Hollywood of today, Weaver would still be an exceptional figure, if only as representative of a bygone era, when oestrogen was at least as likely an ingredient in the formula for massive box office success as testosterone.

And it is a bygone era, at least if the head of the Warner Bros studio has any say in it.

In reported conversations with unnamed producers and anonymous members of his own studio, the company's president of production, Jeff Robinov, declared: "We are no longer doing movies with women in the lead."

The edict was uncovered by journalist Nikki Finke, who posted it on Deadline Hollywood, her website devoted to movies, as distinct from celebrity business, on October 5.

Warners dismissed the story. "Our official response is that [the] item is too ridiculous to dignify with a comment," the studio said.

Read between the lines. It was clear that Robinov was unhappy with two expensive summer season flops his studio had backed, both headed by A-list female stars: Jodie Foster and Australia's Nicole Kidman.

Foster's The Brave One, which opened here last week, cost an estimated $US80 million ($88.5 million) in production and marketing, but has returned a disappointing $US34.4 million in the four weeks since its US release. Foster's reported salary in 2005 was $US10-12 million per film.

Kidman's The Invasion, overseen by three directors, also cost $US80 million, but fared even worse, with worldwide receipts of only $US22.1 million. Last year Kidman topped the salary list of all Hollywood actresses at $US16-17 million per film, including this one for Warner Bros in which she starred opposite the new James Bond, Daniel Craig.

If anything, the numbers were worse than a mere subtraction of box office from budget. An approximate rule of thumb for Hollywood accountancy is that a movie has to return three to four times its cost to be considered profitable.

Thus, The Invasion, which turned out to be so dire Kidman refused to do any promotion for it, would have been expected to earn at least $US200 million.

This compounds what has already been an ordinary year for the leading ladies. Of those releases centred on a female star, only one, No Reservations, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, finished inside the top 50 at the box office, earning $US42.5 million.

This may have informed what Robinov had to say, but the studio had to deny it anyway.

With its rebuttal, Warner Bros issued a list of coming films featuring women at or near the top of the bill. The problem was that each of the six films mentioned would have been most likely approved for production before Robinov's announcement.

Two of those films, Spring Breakdown and the sequel to the highly successful Sisterhood Of The Travelling Pants, are so-called chick flicks aimed at different age groups.

Another, Nights In Rodanthe, has Diane Lane and Richard Gere sharing top billing, while a remake of Get Smart has Ann Hathaway's name beneath that of Steve Carell.

Others, such as Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince, and the Wachowski brothers' Speed Racer, have women at the head of the cast but in ancillary roles.

There was another issue, as well, that would drown Warner's ever more desperate attempts to deny and then defuse the story as it began to circulate in the mainstream media a later posting on the Deadline Hollywood site had Robinov issuing a personal denial, then withdrawing it two hours later.

Indeed, the Deadline Hollywood site says he had decided that only one star, the largely unavailable Julia Roberts, could "carry" a big-budget, international film.

The women actors, as Sarah Kernochan, a New York-based screenwriter, director and producer, explains, know it's a man's world. "It's tacitly understood in the business that most of the projects we're developing are for men," she says.

"There's no question the amount of product for women has diminished. Every year it's a little less. The major studios only want to do the sure thing."

Of course, these are decisions being made by men, who have a certain language for some of their films. The movies aimed at teenage and even grown-up girls are called chick flicks. The majority of the rest, filled with explosions of cars, buildings and bodies, with enough bare female flesh to satisfy the lowest common denominator, are aimed at teenage boys, the ones who reliably go to the cinema on Friday nights. Those films are called dick flicks.

Of all the major studios, only one, Sony, is run by a woman Amy Pascal.

A range of factors, from ignorance to biology, conspire to make the woman's lot in Hollywood an especially difficult one. Speaking at a recent gathering for Elle magazine of some of the industry's most powerful women, Kimberley Pierce, the writer and director of Boys Don't Cry, for which Hilary Swank won her first best actress Oscar, revealed that even pregnancy is regarded as a professional shortcoming.

"You can't get bonded if you're pregnant," she said. (A bond is issued by a bank or completion bond company to insure an independent film. If the feature runs out of money in the course of production, the bond will supply the balance of the funds.)

Success in the upper reaches of this industry takes an almost maniacal level of focus and energy. For some, such as Callie Khouri, the screenwriter of Thelma And Louise, and screenwriter and director Divine Secrets Of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood, it also means making the most fundamental of choices.

"Well, I didn't have kids because I felt like I'm not going to be able to do both things," Khouri says. "I'm not going to fail at two things."

Laura Ziskin, a producer of the Spider-Man movies, found herself confronting that very issue when motherhood and a burgeoning production career arrived simultaneously.

"I remember the exact spot on the Ventura Freeway where I started screaming in my car because I was trying to put a movie together, and I was racing home to nurse the baby, and the milk was coming and the car phone wasn't working," Ziskin told her fellow moguls. "I thought, 'I am failing on all fronts: I will never have the career I want to have because I can't compete with the guys'."

The price of success is immense, but Sarah Kernochan, who is about to start work with Jodie Foster on a small independent film, says the penalty for failure can almost match it.

Kernochan cites the case of A Mighty Heart, a film about the ordeal of Mariane Pearl, whose journalist husband Daniel was kidnapped and subsequently beheaded by Islamic extremists in Pakistan. The film, which opens in Australia on Thursday, stars Angelina Jolie and has been a box office failure.

"That's more damaging to her than George Clooney doing The Good German, which nobody saw," Kernochan says. "Nobody takes the blame for that, but no one will think now that Angelina Jolie can do a major drama. And she's hotter than any female star I can think of. She's one of the few who can carry the lead in an action movie.

"The business is very much unforgiving of female stars who have a flop. It's much harder to recover from that."

Kernochan, who had a hit film in Australia in the late 1990s with The Hairy Bird, believes Foster is one of the few actors who can escape setbacks such as The Brave One with reputation unscathed. She is less certain about Kidman, and, in explaining why, goes part of the way to validating the premise of Warner Bros' Robinov.

"She has never proven she can carry a movie by herself in terms of box office," Kernochan says. "She's a big name and there's a big curiosity factor to see something she's in, but she's never really sold a movie that she's in. After the Oscar, they weren't flops - there were audiences for them - but in the mega-profit sense, she was never in that class that Julia Roberts was in, or Angelina Jolie."

Howard Cohen, the co-president of independent film company Roadside Attractions, is inclined to support Robinov's assertion, although for different reasons. "It's not that he's wrong in saying that," Cohen says, "but it's a chicken or egg question. Most movies bomb. It's a more complicated thing that's being reduced to something simplistic.

"On a statistical level, he's right. If you put an equal number of men and women in equivalent movies, the men would carry the day because they've been developed as action stars, thrillers, comics. No one develops a James Bond franchise with women. There's no money put in women stars in other genres, so it's a self-fulfilling prophecy [that they can't carry a big movie]."

Apart from lack of studio planning and support, another reason given for the scarcity of major women's roles is the shortage of quality material. This, in turn, is blamed on the scriptwriters, who are mostly male.

"There are plenty of female scriptwriters, but they're not getting the jobs," Kernochan says.

"It's generally thought women can only write soft material, for women, and even those projects are often given to men."

By way of example, Kernochan recalls pre-production of Divine Sisters Of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood, adapted from the beloved series of novels of the same name. "It was the epitome of a women's project," adds Kernochan, who pitched her services for the screenwriting duties. Instead, the task fell to a man, Mark Andrus.

"They said, 'he's gay'," Kernochan remembers of the studio's justification for its choice of a man over a woman. "It's almost the same thing."

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