Let’s play a depressing game! Name eight wide-release movies this year that have been specifically marketed to adult women — in the same way that fare like Bridesmaids, It’s Complicated, When Harry Met Sally or even How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days were clearly marketed to a female audience. To play this game, you cannot resort to checking IMDB or box office stats. It needs to be off the top of your head. You have three minutes. Go forth, while I microwave a Pita Pocket. Here’s an Alanis video while you think. I’ll be right back.
Now, what did you come up with? If you came up with eight (or a paltry for each month), you are a wizard, because there aren’t eight. It was a trick question. For the young ladies, we’ve gotten The Host, Beautiful Creatures and Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, but for their older sisters and mothers, you have only six: The Heat, Safe Haven, The Big Wedding, Admission, Tyler Perry’s Temptation and Tyler Perry Presents Peeples. That’s less than one a month and one of them (The Big Wedding) was a barely-marketed studio dump that was due in theatres last year. You might not have even known it was out. Admission and Peeples were barely released before being unceremoniously yanked.
You can make an argument for Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, but that was originally conceived as an Oscar vehicle before the studio realized it had little awards potential, instead retooled as a summer tentpole. Women showed up at a higher rate than men, 59% to 41%, but it was a man’s story written by a male author and directed by a dude, and one in which the last likable character is a woman. This has been especially dire during the summer, where the only movie for adult women was The Heat. That’s it. According to NPR’s Linda Holmes, “If you want to go to see a movie in the theater and see a current movie about a woman — any story about any woman that isn’t a documentary or a cartoon — you can’t.”
Limited release and On-Demand have made more options available for women. The indie circuit has given us Frances Ha, In A World and Afternoon Delight, movies written, directed by and starring women, and the year’s best movie so far, Before Midnight, was co-written by Julie Delpy. However, Before Midnight maxed out in just 897 theatres across the country, a fourth of The Croods’ reach, meaning that a majority of women probably didn’t have access to it. Sure, ladies in New York and L.A. can check out the best that indie cinema has to offer, but what about the girls in Oklahoma or Montana, ones who needs strong women along with the rest of us?
In an essay for Vulture, Amanda Dobbins heroically does the math on the last two and a half decades of film, tracking women’s representation all the way back to 1989, the year that Batman dominated the multiplexes. According to Dobbins, 1989 was the worst year on record for women at the movies — when just 12% of movies featured a woman in a starring role and less than half featured one woman (any woman) in a co-starring role. However, 2013 isn’t much better. It’s the worst year in recent memory, a time when just 32% of movies boast a female lead and 57% a female co-star. These aren’t even movies about women, mind you. They just had to be there. That means that 43% of movies released this year didn’t even have a woman’s name on the poster.
1989 is actually a perfect template for our current predicament. The year radically re-defined how we make movies. When Batman debuted, it’s $40 million opening weekend was by far the highest ever, showing that people would turn out in droves for smart superhero movies — a harbinger for the Christopher Nolan era of big-budget filmmaking. Elsewhere, the top box office earners were crackerjack fare starring dudes — like Indiana Jones and Ghostbusters II, both sequels to well-liked blockbusters — or family fare like Look Who’s Talking, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and Parenthood, where women are wives and mothers.
The year’s highest earners for a “niche” female audience were Steel Magnolias and When Harry Met Sally, two middle-earning hits that signaled the beginning of the rom-com trend in the 90’s. The following year, Pretty Woman made an absolute killing (the equivalent of $344 million), proving that women could fuel blockbuster success, the same way that men do. However, that success was largely credited to star Julia Roberts, who had previously appeared in Steel Magnolias. Pretty Woman made her the biggest star in the world, and she could do whatever she wanted. As long as she was interested in rom-coms, Hollywood would continue making vehicles for her — or knock-offs for those who wanted to claim her throne. (Remember Monica Potter’s movie career?)
Six Julia Roberts movies made over $100 million in the 90s, an era when women’s presence in film consistently trended upwards, but Roberts eventually moved onto other fare, seeming to grow tired of the fame those movies afforded. As she moved on in the 2000s, taking more adventurous roles like Mike Nichols’ Closer instead, Hollywood moved on with her — onto the next fad. While folks like Katherine Heigl or Kate Hudson could easily open a movie five or ten years ago, both of them are now in the bargain bin or taking indie roles — as Hollywood doesn’t make those kinds of movies anymore. Both Heigl and Hudson’s movies made increasingly less money as the scripts dried up and the vehicles got worse, outright killing the studio rom-com.
You might champion this trend, because Katherine Heigl’s movies really did suck, but the disappearance of traditional women’s entertainment hasn’t led Hollywood to seek new opportunities, as many predicted would happen after Bridesmaids. It’s simply left them behind. The Hunger Games and Divergent are determined to turn young girls into fanboys, and like The Heat, The Help and Bridesmaids, they have shown that ladies will turn out for the movies. Bridesmaids made beaucoup bucks off repeat business — women going to the theatres as many times as they could. After all, it might be awhile before they get another decent movie, so they need to get it while they can.
Nearly every other industry banks on the purchasing power of women — from commercials that market household products specifically to Moms to daytime soap operas and magazines that instruct women how to get the perfect bod. Women read, watch television and shop. If a woman goes to the supermarket, she can find no less than 200 shampoo bottles arguing that their formula can give her the best combination of volume and bounce while reducing frizz. So why can’t we bother to make more than one movie for these people who we seem to believe buy everything else? Do we think they have no money left?
Meryl Streep once claimed that the reason we don’t make more movies for women is that men have a more difficult time relating to the stories of women, as they are less willing to identify with women than vice versa. You don’t hear women dismiss Inception as just a “guy movie,” but men regularly stay away from good movies just because they for “for women.” A recent Cracked article on the most overpraised movies took Silver Linings’ Playbook to task, awarding it the number-one slot because it’s secretly a romantic comedy — a “chick flick.” This seems to be its main crime and something to apologize for, and in their marketing, even The Heat and Bridesmaids played up the idea of women behaving badly — or acting like boys.
These are the exact reasons that we can’t seem to get a Wonder Woman movie off the ground, even when we had Joss Whedon behind it. We can get The Green Lantern and The Green Hornet made, as well as a superhero movie featuring a talking tree and a raccoon who shoots rockets. They’re even willing to take a chance on Ant-Man, a project that (like Wonder Woman) many thought would never happen, but a beloved television auteur couldn’t get one movie made a woman. The studio thought it would be “too confusing” for audiences.
With superhero movies, when women are in the picture, it’s Scarlett Johansson showing her butt or Natalie Portman standing off to the side, wind in her hair. They are props and accessories, rather than the pole that holds up the tent itself.
Hollywood needs to start realizing that bringing these “niche” audiences into the picture isn’t just good feminism. It’s good business. This weekend, the top three movies in the country weren’t for the traditional white fanboy audience that it feels like every movie is made for. They were Riddick, The Butler and Instructions Not Included. The Butler is a Lee Daniels movie about the Civil Rights movement, one that has half of black Hollywood in it, and the other two heavily skew toward Latino audiences. By the time it finishes in theatres, Instructions Not Included will likely be the biggest Spanish-language release of all-time.
This could be a breakout year for people of color at the movies, but the problem is the 2011 offered the same for women. One year after a woman won Best Director, 88% of movies featured a female co-star. Everywhere you looked, women were touted to be the next big thing at the box office, yet Hollywood quickly went back to business as usual, despite the prevailing sense that the system is failing us. The industry is nervous that with megaflops like John Carter, Battleship and The Lone Ranger, the era of the blockbuster is over — with folks like Steven Spielberg and Steven Soderbergh predicting a market crash, Hollywood’s equivalent of 1929.
They say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again with different results. The Hollywood model is built on sameness; it’s structurally crazy, a model that’s designed for collapse. Industry insiders constantly wonder what will save the system — whether its 3-D or the next big thing — but eventually we have to realize the next thing is already here. It’s the audiences we’ve long left behind, who so badly want to come. You just have to bother to build it.