Even if you have mixed feelings about The Help, there's a good reason to applaud the film's success. Supposedly, it's confirmed the box office viability of a radical new genre: "Chick flicks" with a bit of substance.
In the L.A. Times, Steven Zeitchik writes:
Over the past few years, it's become practically a ritual that a star-driven movie about female-friendship and -empowerment come out every summer, usually in August, and usually based on a book-club favorite. Last year it was "Eat, Pray, Love;" the summer before it was "Julie & Julia." "The Devil Wears Prada" (which was released over the July 4 weekend) served the genre in 2006.
Aside from a high likelihood of Meryl Streep showing up, Zeitchik says these films have two things in common: They "traffic in themes about female identity" and they're successful.
There's no reason to think these movies wouldn't perform well, since they're based on bestselling novels and feature A-list stars, but Zeitchik says timing had something to do with it too. Since the mid-'90s, action movies have come to dominate the summer, and by July audiences are sick Michael Bay films. ["Never!" — The American public.] Zeitchik writes:
After all, the people who like seeing movies about something other than explosions were still around, and they had the desire, possibly even more than ever, to see a movie aimed at them. Hollywood calls it counterprogramming, but really that's just a jargony way of saying that if there's too much of one thing, it reminds a whole group of people that they want the other.
A more likely explanation: The female half of the population doesn't suddenly remember in early August that we like to watch films that reflect our own experiences, that's just when these movies happen to come out. According to the bestseller/strong ladies/A-list star criteria, The Blind Side should be on this list too (like The Help there's even that questionable "white lady saves poor black people" angle). However, the film came out around Thanksgiving and wasn't considered a "chick flick" because it's not humiliating for guys to watch a football movie.
The message Hollywood should be taking from these films is that women are always interested in (at least slightly) meatier films that pass the Bechdel Test, and we have the power to make them hugely successful. Women will actually take their moms, sisters, and friends (and maybe even the men in their lives), to films that don't feature Kate Hudson as a bitchy career woman who learns about life and love from a working class guy (who may or may not take her on a madcap trip through the countryside). Though, if studio executives get stuck on the idea that they have to release a "thinking woman's chick flick" in August, so be it. We'll be happy see Hollywood produce more female-centric films, even if they're only released once a year.