FRIDAY NIGHT IS DATE NIGHT at the movies. But in Los Angeles, Sex and the City female fans from as far away as Phoenix recently paid $60 to drink Cosmopolitan cocktails at the bar of the ArcLight Theaters and then attend an opening-night movie. Outside the cineplex, groups of girlfriends organized private prescreening “Manolos-only” parties at nearby restaurants. The computer fix-it company Geek Squad is handing out quarters at movie theaters in L.A., New York City and Chicago so guys dragged to the pic by their girlfriends or wives can play arcade games in the lobby.

The R-rated follow-up film to the HBO series that went off the air in 2004 but lives on in TV syndication about the now-40something gal pals sold out because of the buying power of two quadrants: older women and young women. Online ticket retailer Fandango reported that Sex and the City was accounting for an “extraordinary” 90 percent of its advance sales, with tickets being snapped up at the rate of seven per second.

An online survey of more than 10,000 moviegoers buying tickets from Fandango found that 94 percent were women, and that 67 percent planned to attend the movie’s opening weekend with a group of female friends. “This is the wildest, most abnormal movie of all time,” one rival studio’s marketing mogul exclaimed to me.

So I was both amused and appalled the Monday after its debut to watch from the sidelines a spectacle of Hollywood movie execs trying to figure out how to cash in on the Sex and the City female frenzy. True, the chick flick dropped 34 percent from Friday to Saturday, thus easing their initial panic. But the pic did a better-than-expected Sunday to end up with a final $56.8 million for the weekend as the all-time R-rated comedy opening — bigger even than Judd Apatow–branded films.

At least Warner Bros. quickly decided to embrace a Sex sequel. But that same studio is sitting on a potential successor, maybe even a reproducible event, about to come out on September 12. Yet WB is giving that logical successor, The Women, the cold shoulder.

Especially now, you’d think that Warner Bros. would be jumping all over Picturehouse’s long-awaited Diane English low-budgeted $16.5 million remake of the famed Clare Boothe Luce play and 1939 George Cukor film. Forget about the merits of the movie: I’m talking about the potential for box-office moolah stirred up by some savvy Sex-exploiting. Instead, Warner Bros. is still going to let Picturehouse market and distribute the movie in very limited release even though Picturehouse is in the process of shutting down.

If it wanted to, Warner Bros. could control the PG-13 comedy — just like it did Sex and the City from shuttered HBO Films and New Line, the studios that created Picturehouse — but the company isn’t interested.

I’m told Warner Bros. execs, including movie boss and charter member of the he-man women-haters club Jeff Robinov (who keeps maintaining he was just joking when I broke the news last October that he told producers on the studio lot he didn’t want to make any more motion pictures with women as the leads), recently screened The Women and didn’t like it. “It’s not Sex and the City. It’s just not that kind of movie,” a studio insider insisted to me.

Puh-leeze. Who indeed wants a low-budget, $16.5 million chick flick written, directed and produced by one of the biz’s greatest women’s comedy writers, of seminal Murphy Brown fame? And one that stars quality “name” actresses, like Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Eva Mendes, Debra Messing, Bette Midler, Jada Pinkett Smith, Debi Mazar, Joanna Gleason, Carrie Fisher, Lynn Whitfield and Cloris Leachman? That reworks the original so it takes place in the broadcasting world and an ashramlike retreat, where Meg plays a fashion designer and wife and mother, Eva plays the skanky mistress, Annette plays the deliciously two-faced BFF and so on?

English has complained that the most brutal part of her 15-year battle to make The Women “was getting financing. Studios still think it’s a fluke when a women’s picture succeeds. I’m going to prove them wrong — again.”

But often female films can’t even get to first base. For instance, one of the Warner Bros. films that Robinov cited to the Hollywood community while defending himself against the misogyny report was the comedy Spring Breakdown, starring a top-notch cast of great female comediennes, including Parker Posey, and SNL alumnae Amy Poehler and Rachel Dratch (who also co-wrote it). “The studio has decided, despite excellent test scores with women of all ages, and Amy Poehler’s rising stardom [in] Baby Mama, that it should go straight to DVD,” a source tells me. Personally, I’m not at all sure the more sophisticated female audience for Sex and the City and The Women is clamoring for a dumbed-down women’s comedy. But could it be dopier content-wise than, say, the Harold & Kumar franchise?

I say that Diane English should be kicking up a big, fat fuss right now for a full-frills release of The Women. Because I say those quality actresses in a “frenemy” comedy like The Women are a draw for at least a $20M opening weekend in wide release, even if it’s only so-so. True, Warner Bros. must draw heavily on SATC and market it as another pic about female friendships, upscale lifestyles and urban sex. As for The Women trailer that was paired with Sex and the City, I’d redo it to appeal more to the psychographic of SATC’s two-quadrant audience. Along the lines of, “If you loved Sex and the City, then you need to see The Women who started it all.”

Postscript: Right after I posted the above on my Web site, a top Warner Bros. exec phoned me and said, “We should give it another look.”

I hope the studio does that rather than stubbornly stick with Picturehouse’s plan for a limited release to “find” an audience. Just find the SATC audience, for crissakes. According to the exit polling, an incredible 85 percent of the audience for the movie’s opening were women, and of those, 80 percent were older than 25. On Saturday, the audience was 75 percent female; they came back with boyfriends and husbands in tow.

Also, it’s never made sense to me for any studio to spend $30M+ to market a limited-release film that isn’t intended for serious awards consideration, only to open the wallet still wider if and when the pic opens in more theaters in order to compete against all the cineplex clutter.

My feeling is that, these days, studios need to do everything possible to make their money on the first and second weekends for low-budget films — and then the rest is gravy. How apt that the lyrics to the Duffy song “Mercy” on The Women trailer’s soundtrack are: “Why won’t you release me? … I’m begging you for mercy.”

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