Help!

22 Aug

Left to right: Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone, and Bryce Dallas Howard. Btw: how many of you out there know how Howard, daughter of Oscar winning director Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind, 2001), got her name?

Congratulations to director Tate Taylor and the remarkable cast of The Help, the hotter than hot adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s huge, HUGE, best selling novel* about black-white relations in the South, as seen through the eyes of the maids and the women they work for way during the early 1960s. In its second weekend in release, The Help performed a rare trick at the box office by graduating from the number two spot on the charts and landing squarely at the top. That almost never happens because a movie’s opening week ticket sales are typically its strongest. Movies in wide release seldom earn more money in their second week compared to the first. Instead, a drop of about 20-25 % is expected from first week to second, and anything in that range is considered a safe-bet for proving those much pined for “legs.” A drop of over 50% is often considered a disaster. What’s interesting about how The Help performed is that it did show a slight decrease: 26+ million the first weekend  versus 20+ million the second week,  a drop of about 21% (per Box Office Mojo); however, the film also showed an increase in the number of screens on which it was playing (+ 156), so that’s a nifty trick. In contrast, the previous weekend’s number one film Rise of the Planet of the Apes lost 220 screens and took a 41% hit in revenue. Even so, there was plenty of competition over the weekend with the relaunches of franchise efforts, such as Conan the Barbarian and Spy Kids, as well as the Fright Night remake-and the very female friendly One Day starring Ann Hathaway.

Perhaps best of all is just knowing that The Help, made for a relatively modest 25 million, pretty much recouped its initial investment in its first weekend. Of course, distribution and marketing costs are not factored into that budget, nor, presumably, is the fee for purchasing the rights to Stockett’s novel in the first place. Nonetheless, this is pretty much a win-win situation for the makers of the film, and the target audience, which, let’s face it, is primarily women. Of course, every time a summer movie with a strong female following proves successful at the box office, the media goes crazy about how Hollywood has forgotten what a viable demographic we are contrary to all that nonsense about catering to 14 year old boys. Whatever. We got a great big dose of all that at the beginning of the summer when Bridesmaids made money hand-over-fist as well. Don’t expect Hollywood to change anytime soon (not that everyone associated with the enterprise of making movies is corrupt). Successful women’s pictures are often viewed as flukes by industry insiders. After all, the fact that Ann Hathaway’s picture basically tanked over the weekend (a tepid 5 million) will be proof enough to some studio executives that there simply aren’t enough female moviegoers in the 30+ age range to support more than one film at a time. (I saw the Hathway film and enjoyed it though I also think it was badly marketed.) That reasoning will be further bolstered by claims that the Stockett film had a built-in audience due to the book’s staggering success. Furthermore, it was only about a month or so ago I read a report in which an executive at a major studio (which shall remain unnamed) filed a memo to the effect that said studio was no longer in the business of making movies with female characters as leads.  By the way, Bridesmaids is a a Universal picture, and The Help comes from the Disney  and DreamWorks empires, so those are not the culprits.

I enjoyed the movie version of The Help, primarily because I got to see a lot of wonderful actresses go to town with such juicy material. I liked the book well enough–found parts of it problematic–but I was not as sold on it as I know a lot of other readers were. That noted, I don’t regret reading it by any means. At any rate, I’m sure the studio marketing folks are already at work devising an Oscar campaign for The Help‘s talented cast, so let’s consider that for a moment. There are three main characters in the film: Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), a black maid who narrates the story and helps bring the other maids together to tell their own stories in a book proposed by a white writer; Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), a recent college graduate struggling to make a career as a serious writer, and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), a feisty maid who speaks her mind–and then some. Davis is a two-time Tony winner (most recently Best Actress for the revival of August Wilson’s Fences, co-starring Tony winner Denzel Washington), and a previous Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for 2008’s Doubt. Fresh from last year’s teen hit, Easy A, Stone is the current “It” girl of Hollywood, thanks to her role in another recent summer hit, Crazy Stupid Love.  My guess is the studio will campaign for both actresses as leads, and position Spencer, in a more comical role, as a supporting player. I can’t imagine all three actresses being promoted as leads; on the other hand, packaging all the players as part of an ensemble, and therefore, all “supporting,” would be a safe alternative. The worst idea would be to promote only one true lead (either Davis or Stone) and label everyone else supporting. Aside from those three principals, the studio then must figure out whether to splurge on any campaigning for the rest of the fine cast, including Bryce Dallas Howard (as the racist vindictive Junior League president), former Oscar winner Sissy Spacek (as Howard’s addled mother), Allison Janney (as Stone’s long suffering mom), and Jessica Chastain (a vulnerable new bride who forms a life altering alliance with Spencer’s Minny; the two actresses make a nice team, btw).  Chastain, who also performed admirably in this years’s Tree of Life, might very well suffer an embarrassment of riches and cancel herself out of the upcoming Oscar race. There is a slim possibility that Emmy winner and one-time Oscar nominee Cicely Tyson, seen in flashbacks as Skeeter’s gone but not forgotten nanny, could eke out a nomination as well. Of course, the Oscars are quite political, and we are only now barely approaching the time of year in which the studios begin releasing the prestige films that usually catch Academy members’ attention, so there is no guarantee that any of these women will be nominated in any category.

New on DVD: The Conspirator, a fascinating look at the trial of Mary Surrant and her alleged involvement in the plot to assassinate President Lincoln. The Conspirator is directed by Oscar winner Robert Redford (Ordinary People, 1980), and it is the first offering from the American Film Company, the mission of which, per is official website, is “Founded on the belief that real life is often more compelling than fiction, The American Film Company produces feature films about incredible, true stories from America’s past. Central to the company’s filmmaking will be prominent historians, assuring that each production remains true to the history from which it is drawn.” The film stars the often under-rated James McAovy and Dallas darling Robin Wright, whose smashing performance as Surrant has to be considered a true Oscar contender, even at this early date.

Thanks for your consideration…

*Released in 2009, the hardback edition is currently number 21 on the Amazon best seller chart while the paperback movie tie-in is currently number 1. The combined print and online editions also put it at number 1 on the New York Times list as well. The book has been on multiple best seller lists for as many as 100 weeks, according to various published reports.

To find out more about box office facts and figures, check out Box Office Mojo.com:

http://www.boxofficemojo.com/

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