Blockbusters are Hollywood's favourite films, right? Wrong. There's a new genre in town that has turned conventional wisdom about cinema-goers on its head. While male teenagers still make up the biggest audience in US cinemas (hence the endless array of superhero/cop/ disaster themes), women are demanding films that they want to see – and they are starting to get them.
In the coming months, a slew of titles is scheduled to hit the UK market that will test to the limits the traditional film industry theory that so-called "chick-flicks" are incapable of making serious money.
First in line is Baby Mama, a comedy starring Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, in which a 37-year-old career woman decides to have a child by way of a surrogate mother. Lauded for its vulgar brand of dark humour and skilful portrayal of female friendship, it was a surprise box-office hit in the US, topping the charts earlier this year.
Next up is The Women, a remake of the 1939 Joan Crawford classic about the occasionally scandalous affairs of wealthy Manhattan housewives with an all-female cast.
The subject of both films (female friendship), together with their projected audiences (groups of female friends), has prompted talk among industry experts of the start of a new golden era for a genre known as the "girl-friend-flick" or GFF.
Such films are sharper, funnier and more honest than the traditional, pejoratively titled "chick-flick" or romantic comedy. They present a warts-and-all view of female relationships, have almost exclusively female casts, and tend to focus on the subject of women's friendships with each other, rather than their efforts to snare a husband.
The film version of Sex and the City has been a trend curtain-raiser, with much more emphasis on the four heroines' friendships than on Carrie's pursuit of "Mr Big". It has confounded box-office expectations, taking almost £100m worldwide, to "shatter the decades-old thinking that females – particularly older ones – can't fuel the sort of big opening enjoyed by a male-driven event picture", according to the showbusiness magazine Variety.
Cinemas across the world are crediting the film's success to large groups of women buying tickets as part of a wider "girls' night out". The phenomenon has Hollywood bosses looking beyond Baby Mama and The Women for the next female "buddy" hit.
Not surprisingly, the GFF appeals to the upwardly mobile modern woman. The Women – directed by Diane English, and starring Meg Ryan and Eva Mendes – will this month be celebrated by the feminist lobbying organisation Women in Film, when it receives an "excellence in film" prize at WIF's annual Crystal+Lucy awards in Beverly Hills.
The prestigious gong, awarded before critics have actually seen the film, recognises a 12-year struggle by English to get the film made, in the face of almost intransigent reluctance by financiers to back a production without a single man in its cast. Eventually, it was financed by Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones.
According to Women in Film's Los Angeles president, Jane Fleming, the difficulties experienced by English have, until now, been standard fare for female film-makers, particularly those wanting to make titles about their own gender. Of the top 250 films last year, only 7 per cent were directed by women. "Only a very small proportion of films are made for women," Ms Fleming said. "The industry still thinks its core audience is 15- to 35-year-old men. But 50 per cent of potential audiences are women, and they also want to see films about themselves and their experiences, so it's nice when such films do so well."
The GFF enjoyed occasional hits in the 1980s and 1990s, thanks to titles such as Steel Magnolias, Terms of Endearment and Thelma and Louise. Some analysts think its recent return to prominence follows a downturn in the fortunes of traditional romantic comedies amid a dearth of suitable stars for key roles.
"I'm a producer in my day job, and you are always trying to find the next trend," Ms Fleming adds. "Romantic comedies are very cast-driven and you need chemistry and the right mix. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan had a really good run. So did Julia Roberts, and also Hugh Grant." All have now stopped making such films.
Other analysts credit the rise of the GFF, and the success of Sex and the City, to the fact that they represent a "new rendering of the chick-flick," and demonstrate that fashionable, modern women don't need men to feel fulfilled.
"Women are attending films differently to men," says Ray Richmond, TV critic and entertainment columnist for The Hollywood Reporter. "They are going in groups, as a sort of sisterhood, and want to see something that appeals to 'us'. It's a spiritual pilgrimage, and there's a feeling with these sorts of films now that it's more than just a movie: it's a cultural imperative to attend."
'Baby Mama' is released on 25 July; 'The Women' will be in cinemas in the winter