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Why girl power is outgunning the mega-buck movie

A run of flops could spell the end of the macho supermovie, says Francesca Steele

Audiences watching Peter Berg's Battleship, the film based on the Hasbro game (yes, really), could be forgiven for thinking for a moment that they had walked into a screening of Transformers instead.

A few million-dollar explosions here, an apocalyptic alien invasion there... Battleship, out now and receiving lukewarm reviews at best, and scathing ones at worst, is chock-a-block with eerily familiar special effects, from extraterrestrial battle scenes to a ship-sinking that James Cameron would be proud of.

Berg says the film is a "supermovie", in the vein of those made by Jon Favreau (Iron Man), J J Abrams (Super 8) and Cameron (Avatar). Its main objective, he says, was to be "big and fun". Could this though, contrary to his aspirations, spell the end of the so-called supermovie? Audience interest in such films seems to have been wavering of late, catching up with the critics who have long denigrated them.

This year, the muddled fantasy epic John Carter looks set to become one of the greatest flops in Hollywood history after Disney predicted a $200m (£125m) loss. Battleship has been dogged by concern about an over-inflated budget since production started (It's believed to have cost $200m) with Cameron calling the story "pure desperation".

Tom Shone, author of Blockbuster: How the Jaws and Jedi Generation Turned Hollywood into a Boom-town, points out that, although pulpy, action-packed franchises designed to appeal to teenage boys have been the lifeblood of studios ever since Jaws and Star Wars came along in the Seventies, there is now a new power punter in town: the teenage girl.

"For more than three decades, franchises that appeal to boys have been the spine of studios. But films like Twilight and The Hunger Games, which aren't about bigger explosions and gadgets, have changed all that."

There's no question of the current potency of female-friendly films. The Hunger Games took $155m at the US box office in its opening weekend, making it the highest-ever opening non-sequel. And studios are clearly on the look-out for the next female franchise too, with Universal snapping up the film rights in March to Fifty Shades of Grey, a literary sensation dubbed Twilight for grown-ups.

If action-packed supermovies have been Hollywood's backbone in recent decades, then visual effects have been at the root of their success. Gone are the heady days of Eighties "high-concept" films when just a single sequence could blow an unsuspecting audience's mind. Now FX shots are used in their thousands. But do they make a film more successful?

In any case, the real success of a film is not gaining critical, or even audience appeal, says Alexander Ross, a film producer. It is simply getting bums on seats. If the effects in the trailer, along with a star lead, known director and a "presold" – a subject with a fan-base already in place – can sell tickets then studios know they're on to a winner. Last year, the top 10 highest-grossing films of 2011 were sequels, comic-book movies and reboots. Transformers: Dark of the Moon may have been panned but it still made more than $1bn.

If anything, concurs Shone, the failure of John Carter is proof that the "presold" formula works. "John Carter is based on comics that hardly anyone has read and a relatively unknown lead. It failed because it's not your typical supermovie and, sadly, if anything, its downfall will make the Transformers 7s more likely."

So, while we may see a bit more narrative introduced for the girls in the audience, "big and fun" films seem here to stay, though they will need ever more impressive visuals to dazzle. Audiences are too savvy just to put up with more of the same.

In the words of Jaws's Chief Brody, they're going to need a bigger boat.