It wasn't that long ago movie execs, when asked, would say they don't make women-led films. There's no money in them. This would be said out loud, in public, like it was a perfectly reasonable and, moreover, acceptable stance to take. Even when The Hunger Games and Frozen made bank at the box office, these were seen as outliers. Men, the conventional wisdom went, would only go see movies starring men. This is why it is such a vindication this week to see a study released declaring women-led movies do better than male-led ones.
An analysis of box office proceeds and audience attendance of films over the last five years conducted by Creative Artists Agency and technology company Shift7 found movies with females leads outperformed male lead films, not just in mid-range romcoms, but in all budgetary levels of film, from the smallest indie flick to the biggest budget superhero films at the box office.
The analysis examined 350 top-grossing films released between 2014 – 2017, categorized into five budget levels: under $10 million, $10 million – $30 million, $30 million – $50 million, $50 million – $100 million, and over $100 million. To be characterized as female-led, women had to be listed as the lead actor by being listed first in billing blocks, press notes, or distributor-issued final credits.
The study grew out of the Time's Up movement last year and included such names as former Sony Pictures Chairman Amy Pascal as well as actress Geena Davis, who founded her own Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media after her experiences in the business.
Davis has been exploring this for nearly 15 years. In a statement on the findings, she said the following:
I started commissioning data back in 2004, realizing there is so much unconscious bias in this space. The truth is that seeing women and girls on screen is not only good for everyone – especially our children – it’s also good entertainment and good business.
And it's not just having women lead the films, but also having them talk about things important to them, AKA, not about the male lead.
The report also noted that every film that surpassed $1 billion in global box office also passed the Bechdel Test, in which (1) the film has to have at least two women in it; (2) the two women speak to one another in the film; and (3) they speak about something other than a man.
The report acknowledges the Bechdel Test is an extraordinarily low bar to clear. But it speaks volumes such a low bar is the standard of measurement, considering how many films have trouble with even such a minor level of independent thinking on the part of their female characters.
One can only hope Hollywood sits up and takes notice of this report. Marvel has already started working towards more female-led superhero films, and Wonder Woman 1984 is expected to arrive in 2020. But it would be good if production houses could begin making other types of genre films with female leads, for a more extensive array of films aimed towards a female audience. After all, according to the data, that's where the money is.