The headlines lately have ranged from shock to surprise to hope to despair about the films directed by women, films about women, and films aimed at women topping the box office. As we speak, Divergent, Cinderella and Fifty Shades of Grey will clock in as the year’s biggest hits, to say nothing of Home, which should take the box office this weekend despite the reviews. I will come clean and say none of these movies are for me (well, maybe Home). I’m probably not representative of your average female and most of the films that top the box office have zero interest for me, even and especially superhero movies. Not even if you put women in them. They make me sad. But they’re not FOR me.
So this discussion isn’t about whether these movies SHOULD top the box office. It’s more about how no one should be that surprised that these movies do so well considering women are not only 51% of the population but they also represent (according to the MPAA’s box office report) the primary ticket buyers. Women will see movies aimed at men but men won’t see movies aimed at women (same goes for buyers and readers of books). It isn’t that women don’t buy tickets — it’s more that no one really wants to talk about the movies made for women that don’t also appeal to men in some fashion.
Here’s the thing, though. Women are the ones who have the purchasing power. Either Hollywood doesn’t acknowledge that or else has willfully ignored it. Either way, women are primarily the ones who drive family box office, for instance, the explosion of animated movies hitting theaters that parents (but probably moms more than dads but dads too I guess) will take their kids to see, good or bad. They are unbelievably popular, especially their sequels.
Women’s power can be counted in many more areas than just “movies aimed at women.” They can be counted as spenders with family movies and with many films that have crossover appeal between men and women. Somehow, since they star men and are about men, they get discounted in the column that credits women driving their box office success.
I looked at the top twenty at the box office going back twenty years and what I found was that women are probably the more reliable spenders, and it’s really a huge and ugly lie that films have to be about men to be successful. It is simply that Hollywood will not take the risk probably because the majority of people who drive the buzz and conversation around film prefer films about men.
If women decided tomorrow to stop paying for movies that only starred men you would see a considerable drop in profit. Women have always loved going to the movies. They like action movies, science fiction, genre movies, horror, thrillers, romantic comedies and animated films. Their tastes are far more broad than Hollywood gives them credit for and are certainly more broad than their male counterparts.
As far as films being about women, those do well too, a lot better than anyone has given them credit for. Julia Roberts, Jennifer Lawrence, Kristen Stewart, Sandra Bullock, Meryl Streep are some of the names that have reliably driven franchises and hits over the past twenty years. It isn’t that audiences for leading ladies won’t turn out, it’s that the factory stopped really building them up the way they used to, finding projects for them that will be big hits. Sure, they do that for Lawrence but they could be doing it for many more.
Gillian Anderson, for instance, kicking ass in all kinds of ways in The Fall shows what a kind of powerhouse Anderson is when used properly – or at all. Films should be built around her — and why aren’t they? Take a guess and the answer to that guess probably doesn’t have a lot of pubic hair but is well versed on all manner of video games and Legos.
It will take a visionary to show Hollywood the way because right now they’re going to green light projects starring women as long as those appeal to the “Twilight crowd,” the tweener girls and younger. I’m telling you, they’re greatly missing out on a huge section of the population that would pay good money to see female driven dramas, thrillers and horror films.
Here are how women’s movies, so-called, have done over the past twenty years. Data collected from boxofficemojo.com.
You can see my research here in the form of Excel files – some of the choices are debatable. I broke them down by films where women accounted for their box office, where men mostly did, where both did, and which could be called “family films.”
I then tabulated them into pie charts. What’s surprising to me is how dramatic their preference for making films with male protagonists is, considering how many women are out there. Women can take partial credit for family, for both and for “mostly women.” We know that men hardly ever see movies aimed only at women thus, those films have a disadvantage in where the dollars come from.
Here is the breakdown of male to female to both. I counted films where the plot turned on a male or female protagonist. Both reference movies that were either ensembles or partner stories.