Listen, we have bad news: There is probably not going to be a summer movie season this year. But all is not lost. Each Friday for the next few months, we’ll be presenting “The Ultimate Summer Movie Guide,” honoring the greatest, goofiest and most memorable aspects of blockbuster seasons gone by. Maybe it will be a celebration of an iconic film or actor. Perhaps it will be a fond remembrance of a famous movie car. Or, like today, it’ll be a salute to Miranda Priestly.
Going into the summer of 2006, there were plenty of potential blockbusters on the schedule. The Da Vinci Code was the highly anticipated adaptation of the hit Dan Brown novel, starring Tom Hanks. X-Men: The Last Stand was the third installment of the popular superhero series. Cars promised to be another Pixar smash. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest looked to make even more money than 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. (This was back when people liked Johnny Depp.)
Then there was Superman Returns, the first Superman film since 1987’s franchise-killing Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. But this one was going to be different. It was to be directed by Bryan Singer, who had initially made his name as the indie auteur behind the Oscar-winning The Usual Suspects and then guided the first two X-Men films. (He passed on directing The Last Stand, in fact, so he could do Superman Returns.) Warner Bros. had reason to be excited: 2005’s Batman Begins had reignited that property, and surely audiences would be hungry for another DC superhero to come back to the big screen. Plus, Superman Returns would retcon the shitty Superman III and Superman IV out of existence so that it could take place after Superman II (a.k.a. the last good Superman movie). Opening right before the lucrative Fourth of July holiday — and casting charming newcomer Brandon Routh to channel the late, great Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent — Superman Returns looked primed for success.
And, indeed, the movie did win its first week at the box office. But that’s not what anybody was talking about. In terms of sheer buzz, America was swept up by The Devil Wears Prada, which opened against Superman Returns and ended up being the big commercial surprise. In the process, the high-end workplace comedy helped create the template for the modern female-driven summer counterprogramming movie. It’s simplistic to say that, before Prada, the summer multiplex was ruled by films starring dudes. But after Prada, that imbalance at least became a little less egregious.
In the pre-Prada landscape, it’s not that there weren’t any summer blockbusters featuring women, but they tended to be romantic comedies: My Best Friend’s Wedding, There’s Something About Mary, America’s Sweethearts, Monster-in-Law. (The smash 2002 indie My Big Fat Greek Wedding opened in April but stayed in theaters through that summer and well into the fall, gaining screens along the way.) Angelina Jolie was in 2005’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith, but that was a high-octane action film. What made The Devil Wears Prada so novel was that it was just… a movie about women.
Based on Lauren Weisberger’s bestseller, a fictionalized take on her time working in the fashion industry for Anna Wintour, the movie starred Anne Hathaway as Andy, a bright-eyed new personal assistant to the ferociously intimidating magazine editor Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep). The Devil Wears Prada has a romantic subplot — is Andy gonna stick with boring, reliable boyfriend Nate (Adrian Grenier) or throw caution to the wind and choose dashing journalist Christian (Simon Baker)? — but much of the film concerns Andy’s interactions with Miranda and Miranda’s primary assistant Emily (Emily Blunt) as Andy learns the ropes of her demanding job. Prada passed the Bechdel test with flying colors.
The book’s popularity would obviously entice audiences, but although Streep was a star, she wasn’t Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp or Tom Hanks, i.e. someone who immediately guaranteed a blockbuster. Plus, the acclaimed actress had just turned 57: Wasn’t there a rule in Hollywood that audiences wouldn’t pay money to see movies starring actresses “of a certain age”? Opening The Devil Wears Prada against Superman Returns seemed risky.
But if summer is normally a time of big action movies, which require a great bad guy alongside our inspiring hero, The Devil Wears Prada actually had its own supervillain in the form of Miranda Priestly, who rules her world with the same superiority and icy menace as Lex Luthor does his. When Fox read an early version of Weisberger’s novel, Miranda was the reason the studio knew it had to be a movie. “I thought Miranda Priestly was one of the greatest villains ever,” former Fox executive Carla Hacken said. “I remember we aggressively went in and scooped it up.”
Andy might have been the film’s main character, but it was Streep’s commanding star performance that was The Devil Wears Prada’s main attraction. With her fabulous hair, withering tone, regal air and impeccable clothes, Miranda was a force of nature — imposing but also hilarious. Summer movies are often about big chases, big explosions and big stakes, but they can also be about big personalities. (Think Will Smith in Men in Black or Depp in the first Pirates of the Caribbean.) Streep was a revered, Oscar-winning actress, but she’d never done anything this show-stopping in a big studio movie. It was a very fun look on her.
Even better, the gamble paid off. Boosted by strong reviews, The Devil Wears Prada held its own at the box office — earning $40 million in its first week, where Superman Returns grossed $76 million. But in terms of perception, The Devil Wears Prada was viewed as a major success, while Hollywood judged the new Superman movie to be a commercial disappointment. (Add to that the fact that a lot of fanboys hated Superman Returns, which only cemented the impression that the movie was a flop.) It also didn’t hurt that The Devil Wears Prada only cost $41 million, peanuts compared to the $200-million-plus that went into Superman Returns. Every industry story around the Fourth of July repeated the same narrative: Superman Returns had underperformed, and The Devil Wears Prada was the real star. “I don’t know what to say,” Bruce Snyder, the head of distribution at Fox, said about Prada after its stunning first week. “This is beyond my expectations.”
Counterprogramming is a strategy that was around long before The Devil Wears Prada. The idea is pretty simple: If a lot of people are going to see one kind of movie, then a rival studio should slot a very different kind of film into the same weekend to cater to those who aren’t interested in seeing the big movie. Indie studios do this on a smaller scale — for instance, A24 put the edgy, darkly funny psychological horror movie The Lighthouse on eight screens for audiences who didn’t care about Maleficent: Mistress of Evil — but Fox’s decision to challenge Superman Returns head-on with a Meryl Streep movie was unusual. Still, it wasn’t unprecedented: In 2001, Sony took on Jurassic Park III by unveiling its Julia Roberts rom-com America’s Sweethearts, which did really well as a counter-programmer. So Fox knew it had a chance.
Not surprisingly, on The Devil Wears Prada’s opening night, the film brought in an audience that was 79 percent female. (Superman Returns’ was only 43 percent female.) But as Prada stuck around in theaters, the demographics of its audience started to shift. “The core marketing was definitely to women, but the men didn’t resist going to the movie,” Fox executive Elizabeth Gabler said in 2016. “Two reasons: They were interested in the world — and in a woman in that kind of a job because she was so good, she was enjoyable for them to watch. And then, they actually liked it so they talked about it.”
Now, at this point I should say that it’s important to resist making sweeping assumptions about movie audiences based on gender biases. (Girls only like girly movies! Boys only like action flicks!) And the same goes for discussing sexuality and other factors. (I know straight and gay men who abhor Marvel movies, and I know straight and gay women who love them.) But what The Devil Wears Prada definitively demonstrated was that there was a sizable audience out there in the summertime that couldn’t care less about a guy in tights and a cape. And Hollywood took notice.
As a result, the next several summers brought a wave of female-driven event movies. A watershed year was 2008, which boasted both the big-screen Sex and the City (which debuted at No. 1) and another Streep-starrer, Mamma Mia! (which premiered at No. 2, opening the same weekend as The Dark Knight). Suddenly, Streep (who got an Oscar nomination for Prada) emerged as the queen of the female-driven counter-programmer: Her 2009 summer hit, Julie & Julia (which also earned her an Oscar nod), went toe-to-toe with G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. And although some of these films could be described as romantic comedies, they weren’t necessarily of the generic boy-meets-girl variety. Love was often central to these movies, but more often, they were just stories about women, something that had been practically unheard of during bygone shoot-‘em-up summer movie seasons.
This new era of female-driven blockbusters could also be seen as the precursor to the broad female comedies that would soon start springing up. In the wake of the Sex and the City films, which had been rated R, Bridesmaids gave viewers a raunchy, adults-only laugher that was as outlandish and hilarious as The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Superbad. Pretty soon, it hardly seemed newsworthy that Pitch Perfect 2 (which was rated PG-13) and Trainwreck were among the biggest successes of the summer of 2015 — or that Girls Trip was a huge hit in 2017. (Or, for that matter, that Summer 2017’s hugest hit, Wonder Woman, was a female-driven action movie.) And the tradition continues: If not for COVID-19, this summer we would have gotten Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, a female buddy comedy starring and co-written by Bridesmaids screenwriters Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo.
The Devil Wears Prada didn’t create this sea change on its own, but the fact that it was able to duke it out with Superman 14 years ago changed the way studios thought about what constituted a summer blockbuster. Sure, Superman Returns ended up out-grossing Prada, but brawny action movies often cost three or four times more than female-driven counter-programmers, which means that the Pradas aren’t under the same pressure to be box-office titans. In a way, there’s actually less risk involved in counterprogramming because, when you have dialogue instead of special effects, it tends not to be so expensive to make.
That summer of 2006 is sometimes remembered for Superman Returns’ commercial failure and its inability to re-launch the Man of Steel. (We wouldn’t see Krypton’s most famous son at movie theaters again for another seven years.) But why not think of it, instead, as the year where Meryl Streep became a summer superstar?
Miranda Priestly is an incredibly influential tastemaker, but nobody could have imagined that she’d reshape the multiplex to make it safe for people who didn’t want to just watch action films.