You probably are not giving much thought to either The Expendables, an Avengers-style roundup of action stars with AARP cards, or Eat Pray Love, a travelogue of white feminism, as they approach their tenth anniversaries on August 13. (As you shouldn’t.) The movies have deservedly faded from memory and, even worse for their makers, cable rotation. In a cruel irony everyone could have seen coming at the time, the weekend opener that is the subject of tributes and retrospectives came in a disappointing fifth at the box office: Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.
What’s worth remembering about these movies and this weekend, however, pertains little to the content that played before the eyes of Obama-era theatergoers. The legacy we still live with a decade later derives from the industry coverage of a standard multiplex event – counterprogramming – and reductively framing it as a battle of the sexes. Film journalism’s decision to go all in on imposing the conflict perspective upon the weekend, filtering everything through gendered competition, both revealed existing structural biases and cast a dark shadow over box office and industry reporting from which we still have yet to emerge.
This is not just an inside baseball story. Box office performance plays an outsized role in determining what studios and financiers feel comfortable greenlighting in their board rooms. In particular, the coverage of opening weekends often dictates how long a film stays in theaters, how aggressively it gets released and promoted abroad, and whether or not similar films move further in the production pipeline. It might seem uncouth to discuss artistic output like a box score in the sports section, but if ever there were a place to break a vicious cycle of patriarchal thinking in Hollywood, it would be with the box office chatter.
The summer of 2010 was a particularly bleak one for big studios as the aftershocks of two twinned seismic shocks – the 2007-08 writers’ strike and the 2008 financial crisis – became palpable to moviegoers. Since Spielberg and Lucas redefined the season with nationwide rollouts of big-budget action flicks, summer movie season has been synonymous with high-octane tentpole films geared largely towards a demographic of men that have gotten younger and younger. 2010’s crop saw flop after flop: Robin Hood, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, The A-Team, Jonah Hex, Knight and Day. By the time the dog days of summer rolled around in July, Hollywood’s most coveted and catered to audience had begun to grow restless. Some men saw August 13’s release of The Expendables as the last chance to redeem or reclaim what they believed was something they owned and dominated.
Sadly, this notion is not entirely incorrect. In the thirty years prior to 2010, there was a single year in which the top-grossing film domestically featured a female protagonist (1997, Titanic). There’s a pesky ingrained sexism in Hollywood that presumes a certain kind of narrative – white, male, straight – is “universal” and everything else is “niche.” This leads to an unfortunate double standard perpetuated by studio executive committees and often laundered through the press: everyone should be able to identify with men’s stories, but men cannot be expected to identify with women’s stories. This has consequential implications, because when movies by and about men fail, they are usually written off as flukes owing to the errors of individual films. When it comes to women or other non-majority groups, headlines swirl about whether people want to see movies from that vantage point at all.
It’s important not to conflate the actions of a loud, vocal minority with the majority of moviegoers who bought tickets blithely unaware of the media discourse surrounding the would-be box office battle between The Expendables and Eat Pray Love. But in the case of this particular weekend, the macho chest-thumpers online were merely saying the quiet part that the respectable journalists try not to say out loud. A month out from release, director and editor Garrison Dean uploaded a fan-made trailer for The Expendables that he dubbed “A Call to Arms.” This remarkable monument of male fragility would be easy enough to dismiss if it had not allegedly caught the attention of the MPAA, who got the video taken off YouTube for using their pre-trailer green bumper.
Over images of Twilight and Mamma Mia set to hardcore punk, Dean admonished male moviegoers for “handing the keys to Hollywood to teenage girls and G.N.O.” He further identifies an enemy that viewers need to tranquilize: “Julia Roberts may be the final blow. Eat Pray Love: women adore the book, Oprah swears by it. August 13th, the movie arrives. August 13th is our last chance — we take back what’s ours.” The video struck a nerve with many men online, one of which quipped “I may have grown a third testicle just watching it” on Dean’s blog. “This trailer is everything the fans feel about the film,” wrote a commenter on the YouTube video.
“A Call to Arms” caught the attention of Steven Zeitchik, then of the Los Angeles Times, who penned a blog post around the video after it started gaining traction online. Zeitchik notes that Dean’s “good-natured” willingness to openly declare the testosterone-pumping appeal of the film made a better case for The Expendables than Lionsgate’s own gingerly, focus-grouped trailer did. “Studios aren’t about to turn over the marketing keys to fans. But sometimes the fans take it anyway, Stallone-style,” he concludes. “And when they do, it can be a beautiful thing.” Correlation does not always equate to causality, but it’s around this time that tracking began to tick up for The Expendables, according to BoxOffice.com’s Phil Contrino.
These fans began to set the tone and expectations around both movies in a way that seeped into coverage at the highest levels of entertainment journalism. “We don’t want to say action movies are getting wimpier,” opined New York Post in early August, “but when 12-year-old Jaden Smith is the biggest action star of the summer, you know something’s gone wrong.” Even a piece in Vanity Fair that had ostensibly nothing to do with the commercial performance of Eat Pray Love made a throwaway reference to Ryan Murphy’s film as the “estrogen-fueled answer to The Expendables.” You know, as if the movie exists only to be defined in relation to and in opposition to men, not as its own independent entity.
August 13, 2010 was far from the first instance of studios counter-programming movies from different genres to attract a wide array of moviegoers, but it marked a new era in turning moviegoers’ voting with their dollars into a political act. Buying a ticket to Eat Pray Love or The Expendables was more than just a choice of how to spend two forgettable hours escaping the summer heat in an air-conditioned auditorium. It was a vote in support of your gender.
All this culture war-style drama was not in place of the banal, acceptable misogyny expressed through regular box office reporting; it was just on top of it. Speculation around Eat Pray Love’s performance frequently centered around whether audiences were still interested in seeing films with Julia Roberts, then 42, in a leading role. Despite a string of commercial and critical successes in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, The Daily Beast proclaimed Roberts “unproven.” No one seemed to express a similar skepticism about Stallone, who had not scored a #1 box office hit since 2001’s Driven. (And it opened in the sleepy late April corridor, too, so the achievement is even less impressive!)
Roberts’ age was also frequently implied as something that counted against Eat Pray Love. Nikki Finke, the wannabe Hedda Hopper of the blogosphere, decried Roberts as a “has-been” in Deadline. Meanwhile, the graying stars of The Expendables, in embracing their geriatric status, were celebrated for their age.
The Daily Beast also derided Eat Pray Love as a “one-quadrant” film, meaning they saw the film’s appeal limited only to women over 25 who could see themselves and their experiences reflected in the narrative. This is sexism reinforced by market forces – in order to ensure that movies kept getting made for this underserved audience of female moviegoers, studios have to market aggressively to them. Sony embarked on a then-unprecedented takeover of HSN to sell Eat Pray Love to this demographic of older women (not to be outdone, Lionsgate bought low-cost ads for The Expendables across over 100 pornography sites). But by ensuring that a movie can succeed with a non-male target quadrant, the assumption is that the film is thus alienating or less appealing to that gender. The Expendables had a similarly specific gendered and age-based appeal to men who grew up with Stallone and his squad in their ‘80s and ‘90s prime. But guess which film The Hollywood Reporter described as “niche” when recapping the box office?
Coverage of the two films assumed bellicosely oppositional tenor – you were for one or the other based on your gender. But this flew in the face of what actually played out at cinemas across the country. As Box Office Mojo reported, 39% of the audience for The Expendables was women. (It wasn’t even the biggest “dick flick” of the weekend, either; Scott Pilgrim vs. The World drew only 36% women.) Some outlets, like Ad Age, chalked this up to women who “went […] with their husbands and boyfriends this weekend,” completely erasing and ignoring women who choose to see movies like The Expendables of their own volition. While it’s easy to imagine why many would completely reject a film that views them as either a prize to be won or a damsel in distress, female action fans do exist!
No one dared ask why only 28% of the audience for Eat Pray Love was men, however, in part because the culture has set the bar so low for them. The press treated the victory of The Expendables as a reversion to normal, an expected triumph of gendered tribalism where men stick with their own and let women have their movie in second place, as a treat. (To their credit, Variety did recognize the complexities.) “Testosterone washed over the boxoffice” per The Hollywood Reporter as early grosses began to roll in, “But the ladies in the movie-going audience weren’t giving up without a fight.” Deadline’s Nikki Finke went so far as to declare “GUYS BEAT GAL” in their headline. For the kinds of men who commented on “A Call to Arms,” the results served as a kind of vindication. They owned the box office. Which meant, by extension, they owned movies.
It’s hard not to see the ripple effects of this weekend and its ensuing coverage throughout the last decade. The Expendables and its small legion of online fans did not invent toxic masculinity, but their antics made for an instructive episode about the unifying potential of identity-based cultural grievance. Erstwhile aspiring culture commentator Donald Trump recorded an entire video for his social media to decry the female-fronted Ghostbusters reboot in 2014. “Now they’re remaking Ghostbusters with only women, WHAT’S GOING ON?!” he exclaimed in a primal scream of misogynistic puzzlement. As if there is some rule that declared fictional characters had to stay the same gender over time…
The explosion of streaming services has undoubtedly helped ameliorate some of the stone-aged thinking of theatrical-focused companies around appealing to given audiences. With the ability to make data-driven determinations around content, the 2010s saw an explosion of content hyper-targeted to audiences who made up a substantial portion of a platform’s viewership but rarely saw their likeness valued and validated with on-screen representation. And yet, on the silver screen, Disney released tentpoles entitled Tangled, Brave and Frozen because they were afraid young boys would not want to see a “princess movie.” Meanwhile, the sexist online vitriol has only grown louder and more organized in the Trump era as Ghostbusters and other female-led films faced coordinated attacks borrowing tactics from Gamergate. The response, for now, has largely been to further politicize consumption, which places undue and unnecessary expectations on any film that does not uphold the dominant male culture.
Ten years following the square-off between The Expendables and Eat Pray Love, there is no box office to speak of. If we’re lucky enough to have both movie theaters and new releases again one day, we should expect and aspire to more from coverage of this aspect of the industry. The fact that the audience for a film does not look like a mirror image of the protagonist is self-evident proof to debunk the theory of monolithic viewership. The quicker we can move past these outdated notions, the better cinema can embody its greatest capacity as, to quote Roger Ebert, “a machine generating empathy.”