Clockwise from top: Sandra Bullock, Jennifer Lawrence, Melissa McCarthy, Will Smith, Johnny Depp.
Hollywood: dumb or venal? I once thought the latter, but now I’m not so sure. The prompt was a study that came out this week claiming that of the 100 highest-grossing movies of 2013, only 15 featured women as their central protagonists.
As mingy as that number might seem, it is actually up from the 11 high-grossing films carried by actresses in 2011—but down, alas, from 16 in 2002. The study was published by the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film at San Diego State University, which also tabulates the number of women working behind the camera. (Not such a great statistic, either. You can find the center’s studies here.) On the one hand, given the conventional wisdom that says there are no good roles in Hollywood for actresses—especially actresses over the age of 23 or so—maybe those numbers aren’t so shocking, even in a movie year that produced Gravity and Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Frozen. On the other hand, I for one will confess to being un-jaded enough to be surprised and dismayed by the further finding that only 30 percent of all speaking roles in those top 100 movies went to actresses—a number even more disturbing when you calculate that probably half those speaking roles for actresses were strip-club hostesses asking Mark Wahlberg or Vin Diesel if they wanted to buy a bottle of lousy champagne.
Of course, many people took the study as proof that Hollywood is myopic and sexist and dumb. As Martha M. Lauzen, the author of the study and executive director of the center, told The New York Times, “We think of Hollywood as a very progressive place and bastion of liberal thought. But when you look at the numbers and representation of women onscreen, that’s absolutely not the case.” She blames that on a dearth of women in positions of power in the film industry: “If there’s gender inertia behind the scenes, you’ll find gender inertia onscreen.”
I wondered, though. My operating assumption is that Hollywood’s sins can generally be laid at the feet of audiences, that the studio’s biggest character flaw is that they try so gosh-darn hard to please. Put another way, audiences get the films they’re willing to pay for, as the summer movie-going season demonstrates year after year. Was The Lone Ranger a big huge bomb? Well, sure, if you only care about so-called return on investment. Leaving aside that it cost Disney approximately $12 quadrillion to make, The Lone Ranger grossed $89 million domestically; with an average ticket price of $8.38 last summer, that means more than 10 million people went to see it. Which you have to admit is still a lot of bad-movie enablers.
So I figured that if Hollywood sharpies decline to make many movies about women having adventures in space or catching criminals or getting to be the funny ones, it was because, despite a few prominent exceptions, audiences didn’t want to see them, in aggregate. Money talks, walks, eats, breathes, has a private yoga instructor, collects Richard Price, flosses, so I figured there must be method to Hollywood’s ostensible sexism.
To prove my theory, I put on my Nate Silver hat and looked at the top 100 grossing domestic movies of 2013, as tabulated by Box Office Mojo. (By definition, these are films that played in theaters, most with the benefit of serious to reasonable marketing budgets as opposed to VOD-only releases, etc.) The Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film’s doesn’t list which specific films it counts as headed by women, but I did my own tabulation and also came up with these 15 (listed here, followed by its place in the top 100):
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (1)
The Heat (15)
Identity Thief (20)
Safe Haven (48)
Tyler Perry’s Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor (68)
The Call (69)
August: Osage County (79)
Blue Jasmine (86)
The Host (96)
Obviously, some of these calls are subjective. Identity Thief co-starred Melissa McCarthy and Jason Bateman and was more or less told from Bateman’s point of view, but McCarthy’s character dominates the film and, with all due respect to the wonderful Bateman, I’d argue she was the one audiences were coming to see, so I added that film to the women’s column. Similarly, August: Osage County, an ostensible ensemble film where Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts are the draws.
On the other hand, there was Saving Mr. Banks, which is really Emma Thompson’s movie, but Tom Hanks figured so prominently in the advertising and promotion I put it in a neutral category—great parts for all! (or at least equal parts)—along with five other films: American Hustle, We’re the Millers, The Conjuring, Side Effects, and Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, a film the very title of which speaks gender equity.
You might quibble with some of these designations, but I think we can all agree that the bulk of the year’s top 100 movies, from Iron Man 3 to World War Z to The Secret Life of Walter Mitty to Grudge Match were boy movies. Two close calls that I left on the male side of the ledger: Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas (my, grandma, what a big Y chromosome you have) and One Direction: This Is Us (starring boys, made for girls).
Also, just to be sure that box office wasn’t skewing the study’s results, that there wasn’t a huge cache of women-centered flops clustered below the top 100, I took a look at the next 50 films on Box Office Mojo’s grosses list; at that point, you’ve pretty much covered all the big studio films and many indies and are drilling down into documentary, foreign film, and re-release territory. Of those 50 films, I tallied 10 headed by actresses—a slightly higher percentage than in the top 100, but not dispositive—and 4 gender neutral. A list of those films is appended below.
O.K., here’s the math part, which is actually pretty simple (otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it):
Total gross of all the top 100 movies in 2013: $10.039 billion.
Total gross of 15 actress-centered movies: $1.908 billion.
Total gross of 79 actor-centered movies: $7.525 billion.
Average gross of actress-centered movie: $127 million.
Average gross of actor-centered movie: $95 million.
So I was wrong! Actress-centered movies out-grossed actor-centered movies by almost exactly one-third! Hollywood is myopic and sexist and dumb! Or else it has a better excuse for not making more movies starring women than I can think of—are Gravity and Catching Fire exceptions to some closely-held, super-secret rule? At any rate, according to math, the studios appear to be leaving money on the table, one sin they’ve rarely if ever been accused of.
To tie a neat little numerical bow around this report, the six gender-neutral films grossed an average of $101 million each, essentially the same as the average gross for all top 100 films films—$100 million. The difference is the change in Brett Ratner’s couch.
I suppose someone might argue that these aren’t fair comparisons. One might whine that the boys’ average is dragged down by a surfeit of tired thrillers, tired action movies, tired comic-book movies, and tired buddy movies. But whose fault is that?
A couple of suggestions:
Whoever it is who has an obsessive need to squander Robert De Niro by putting him in movies like Grudge Match, The Family, and Last Vegas should take a good look in the mirror, and then maybe think about squandering Charlize Theron for a change.
And memo to Sony: next time you make After Earth, cast Willow instead of Jaden.
Here’s my list of actress-centered films from the next 50, again followed by rank:
Baggage Claim (106)
The Book Thief (109)
You’re Next (114)
Enough Said (118)
The Last Exorcism Part II (125)
Spring Breakers (126)
The Bling Ring (146)
Pulling Strings (147)
The Wizard of Oz, 3-D re-release (149)
Chennai Express (150)
Reposted From Vanity Fair