Studios used to have a simple directive when they wanted a movie to do well: put a guy in a cape and watch the money roll in. (That, or cast Will Smith.) Soon, however, studios may be demanding a wardrobe change: swap the cape for a dress. Or, better yet, put a girl in the cape.
With the past three weekends finding Katniss Everdeen battling a Disney princess for the box office crown, and bothThe Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Frozen outperforming even the highest expectations, it may be time to crown 2013 the year of women at the box office. Or, rather, it’s finally time to make the pronouncement. Ever since Bridesmaids stunned the industry by grossing $170 million without a caped crusader or leading man in sight, audiences have been waiting for the lesson that was supposed to be learned—a film starring an ensemble of women could get audiences of both genders rushing to theaters—to sink in with Hollywood’s stubborn honchos.
Did it just happen?
With just three weeks to go before the ball drops and the confetti rains on 2014, the year-end box office report features more female-led films at the top than ever before. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is already the third-highest grossing film of the year with $336 million, meaning that Katniss Everdeen is more popular than Superman. (Man of Steel is currently in fourth place.) Sandra Bullock? She’s a bigger draw, it seems, than Brad Pitt and one of the greatest novels of all time. Gravity’s $251 million gross trumps World War Z’s $202 million and is the biggest sci-fi film of the year, grossing more than Star Trek Into Darkness. And The Heat took in more money than The Great Gatsby—at less than half the cost.
Nine movies with females in the lead as the main box-office draw (an admittedly subjective metric) grossed over $100 million domestically in 2013: Catching Fire, Gravity, Oz the Great and Powerful, The Heat, We’re the Millers, Identity Thief, Frozen, Lee Daniels’ The Butler—try to tell me that people weren’t lining up for that movie mostly to see drunk Oprah—and Epic. It’s the highest number yet of what’s been a steady increase over the last five years. Only seven films in 2012 were sold on the appeal of an actress or a female-driven story (The Hunger Games, the Twilight finale, Brave, Snow White and the Huntsman, Safe House, and The Vow). In 2011, the number was five. There were five in 2010 and four in 2009.
“Hollywood is waking up to the fact that if they stop making movies solely for 18-year-old boys they can make a lot of money,” says Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. The most effective way of doing that, it’s becoming glaringly clear, is to make films starring women. “I hope what we saw this year was not just a trend,” he says. “I hope it’s here to stay. And I think it is.”
It would, of course, be easy to write off the success of The Hunger Games films—the top-grossing female-led movies of this year and last year—on the popularity of the franchise. But there’s also no denying the star power of best friend to the world, Jennifer Lawrence, and the role she played in elevating the movies from solid box-office performers to bonafide phenomena. “Everyone compares The Hunger Games’ success to Twilight,” says Contrino. “But that’s not fair. This is Harry Potter level. The films are that big.”
Lawrence, as it happens, also appeared in another of 2012’s big hits, Silver Linings Playbook, and could be a lynchpin in determining the box-office prospects of the upcoming Oscar contender American Hustle. It’s similar to how Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy are both in two of this year’s $100-million earners with female leads, and Kristen Stewart starred in two of the biggest female-led hits last year.
Is it fair to say that actresses in general are proving their box-office worth when much of the success can be attributed to a handful of stars?
When Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock were opening The Heat this summer, I interviewed veteran Hollywood producer Lynda Obst, famous for bringing films about and starring women to the big screen —Sleepless in Seattle, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Someone Like You. She was less bullish on the idea that the industry is changing to be more welcoming to movies starring women.
“Bridesmaids was supposed to change the world, but it didn’t,” she said. “Basically what happens after a women’s picture is successful is that studios attribute that to the stars, and not the audience.” You certainly see evidence of that here—Bridesmaids outfitted McCarthy with a jetpack that she’s used to rocket straight to A-list status. Identity Thief and The Heat were both huge this year.
Contrino points to another film as the one that was supposed to be the turning point when it comes to major studio projects starring women: The Blind Side. The Sandra Bullock film became the highest grossing female-led movie ever made in 2009, and was supposed to open the flood gates for more movies like it to be made. Obst’s argument could apply here, too. The success of Gravity and The Heat this year could mean that it’s Bullock, not women, who is becoming a bigger box-office draw. But Contrino thinks its effect was broader than that.
“Hollywood said, Whoa, this thing was a massive hit and didn’t cost a lot of money,” he says. “Other studios became jealous of that and began diversifying their slates. Hollywood makes the decisions based on money.”
Even if it’s the case that it’s just a few actresses who are leading this renaissance of studio films starring women, it’s still something to cheer about. After every big studio flop, industry insiders eulogize the the Age of the Movie Star. The days are over when Will Smith, Tom Cruise, and Tom Hanks, to name a few, took turns sitting on King Midas’s throne, alternately turning every movie they touched into box-office gold, executives would lament. It’s franchises that sell now, not stars. Sequels, and not actors. Ideas, and not individuals. Asked whether there was anyone who was still a box-office guarantee, insiders would be hard-pressed to name a single actor.
Perhaps they should try naming some actresses.
If nothing else, Sandra Bullock, Melissa McCarthy, and Jennifer Lawrence are proving that the Age of the Movie Star isn’t over—it’s just being run by a different gender. Even if the change is slow, much slower than many people would like, the effect of their rule is already being seen.
The proof even has super powers, says Contrino: “It’s no surprise that you’re now seeing Warner Brothers working Wonder Woman into the next Man of Steel.”