Female-Led Films Perform Better at the Box Office

While most Hollywood blockbusters have male leads, films starring women actually do better on the aggregate.

I was rather bemused by the headline and lede of this New York Times article:

Movies Starring Women Earn More Than Male-Led Films, Study Finds

“Trolls.” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” “Moana.” “Inside Out.” “Wonder Woman.” All were global box-office hits that had women in leading roles.

It’s true that these movies all featured women in leading roles. In the cases of “Moana” and “Wonder Woman,” in particular, they were also films praised for having strong female characters. But the first four of these are animated features and the other is a live-action film based on a comic book. All but “Moana” and “Inside Out” were based on franchises established for decades. It’s odd to use these particular examples, then, as evidence that the key to box-0ffice success is to cast more women.

But maybe it’s just a bad lede?

They were also part of a broader trend. According to findings from the Creative Artists Agency and shift7, a company started by the former United States chief technology officer Megan Smith, the top movies from 2014 to 2017 starring women earned more than male-led films, whether they were made for less than $10 million or for $100 million or more.

The research also found that films that passed the Bechdel test — which measures whether two female characters have a conversation about something other than a man — outperformed those that flunked it.

“The perception that it’s not good business to have female leads is not true,” said Christy Haubegger, a C.A.A. agent who was part of the research team. “They’re a marketing asset.”

These findings strike me as quite plausible. After all, women and girls make up slightly more than half of the movie-going audience; one presumes they’d prefer movies that showcase women and girls in a positive light. And, in recent decades, we’ve seen that men, by and large, are willing to go to movies—even action-adventure movies—with strong female leads.

Still, while perfectly plausible, the evidence that this provides “a marketing asset” is thin.

The C.A.A. and shift7 report looked at the top films at the global box office each year from 2014 through 2017, using information from Gracenote, a data and technology provider owned by Nielsen. (The time frame was based on a database C.A.A. created for its diversity study.) “Lead actor” was determined by the performer listed first on Gracenote. This meant that both “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” were designated male-led films: Gracenote listed Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill as the leads for each, rather than Daisy Ridley. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” was led by Megan Fox and “Trolls” by Anna Kendrick.

So, right away, we have what would seem a rather glaring methodological flaw—although one that, based on these examples, might actually understate the case being made. I saw all of those movies save “Turtles” in the theater with my young daughters. I’m not sure I realized that Kendrick was the star of “Trolls,” since it was an animated film and it was an ensemble more than a lead-driven film. Conversely, while we went to the two “Star Wars” installments for the franchise and the continuing sagas of the Han Solo and Luke Skywalker characters, they were both notable for the strong female protagonists. While the fact that it was part of the “Star Wars” franchise mattered more than the casting per se, they and “Rogue One” were widely praised for their portrayal of women.

The analysis was based on 350 films with budgets listed on Gracenote. Of those, 105 were led by women and 245 by men. The data was further broken down by budget size, partly because the tentpole films made for more than $100 million are a key part of studio business and the study’s authors decided that they needed to be considered on their own. (In that category, there were 75 male-led films and 19 films starring women.) The other categories were films made for less than $10 million, $10 million to $30 million, $30 million to $50 million and $50 million to $100 million.

In each bracket, the average earnings for female-led films surpassed those of their male-led counterparts. The median value, or numerical middle, which is often considered more statistically significant because it reduces the impact of outliers, yielded the same results, with one exception: In the $30 million to $50 million category, the median take for male-led films was $104 million, and for women it was $102 million.

The study also drew information from Bechdeltest.com, which had applied the test to 319 of the films analyzed in the C.A.A. report. Of those, 60 percent passed. The researchers found that no film between 2014 and 2017 earned $1 billion without passing the Bechdel test and that no film has made $1 billion without passing the test since 2012.

Presuming that the seeming arbitrariness of the Gracenote listings evens out over such a large sample size, the results are interesting. And, again, quite plausible.

While women account for about half of movie tickets sold, Haubegger said she believed the greater success of films starring women and people of color can be attributed to a thirst for fresh storylines. “You’ve got superhero fans that haven’t seen innovation in superhero movies in 36 years,” she said.

Haubegger also said the perception that such films are risky means they face more studio scrutiny from the outset. “I think they’re less likely to take a bet on a turkey,” she said, “And the movie ends up punching at or above its weight class.”

Leaving aside that it’s nonsense to claim there hasn’t been any innovation in superhero movies over the last 36 years, it’s quite reasonable to think that audiences want something new and that films that attempt to break out of proven formulas come under greater initial scrutiny.

Turning to the shift7 study linked in the NYT report (indeed, the report seems to be based entirely on the accompanying press release). there is no individual-level data. That makes it impossible to look for obviously overlooked variables in the study.

Looking at that data for myself, it’s not true at the highest level that we penalize films with male leads. While they pass the Bechtel test, almost all of the top movies of 2018  have male leads, including all of the top ten.

1. Black Panther
2. Avengers: Infinity War
3. Incredibles 2
4. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
5. Deadpool 2
6. The Grinch
7. Mission: Impossible – Fallout
8. Ant-Man and the Wasp
9. Solo: A Star Wars Story
10. Venom

Now, literally every single one of these movies is part of an existing franchise. The fact that the star was male was presumably not the story. But only “Incredibles 2 ” and “Ant-Man and the Wasp” even arguably have a female co-lead.

The next ten, though, are much more female-centric:

11. A Star Is Born 
12. A Quiet Place 
13. Bohemian Rhapsody
14. Crazy Rich Asians 
15. Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation
16. Halloween 
17. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
18. The Meg
19. Ralph Breaks the Internet
20. Ocean’s Eight

Half of those films have a female lead. The Lady Gaga vehicle “A Star is Born” is a remake. But of the three original, non-franchise movies in the group, two (“A Quite Place” and “Crazy Rich Asians”) have women in the leading role.

It’s not worth the effort to cut-and-paste and then edit down more of the list here. Of the next thirty films (21-50), the ones with woman listed as the main character are:  22, 26, 27, 36, 39, 40, 43, 46, 47, and 48—exactly a third. And, honestly, I had to click through many of the actors (both male and female) in this group to determine their gender because many are less than household names.

The long tail must be doing a lot of work here.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Economics and Business, Entertainment, Gender Issues, Popular Culture
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. MarkedMan says:

    James, I think you managed to overlook the important point of this study. You are trying to make it into a contest, but that’s not what this is about. (In fairness, the Times’ lede does play that angle up.) It has long been an “accepted fact” in Hollywood that investments in a movie that stars a female often lose money. This shows that is not true. The fact that the top ten movies are all male led is a demonstration of that “accepted fact” rather than a refutation of the study. The key point is that female led movies, regardless of budget size, fared well on average.

    You also take exception to the way the an actor was deemed to be the lead. While I’m not familiar with Gracenote, I know that everywhere that a studio controls the order of listing the stars is hard fought territory and usually represents the pay scale of the actors. It certainly represents who the studio considers top dog because the lead’s agent negotiated for that position (and the salary that goes with it) and the lower listed actors had to agree with it.

    I believe I read somewhere that the names on movie posters often aren’t listed in the same order as the photographs is that the order was negotiated as part of the contract, long before a poster was even conceived.

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  2. R. Dave says:

    Hm, is Emily Blunt generally thought of as the lead in A Quiet Place? My recollection of it is that Krasinski was the central character – i.e., the one with an active role in driving events rather than a passive role reacting to them and the one whose emotions (guilt and protective instincts) served as the main emotional throughline. Blunt just seemed to be along for the ride to me. Of course, as a guy, maybe I just instinctively identified more with Krasinski’s character and thus was biased towards seeing him as the lead. Guess I’ll have to rewatch it with an eye toward sussing that out!

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  3. Kathy says:

    9. Solo: A Star Wars Story

    I thought that was a terrible flop, not a top ten movie 🙂

    Speaking of it, it strikes me that Qi’ra had a more interesting story than Han, but the film wasn’t focused on her. Fleshing out her adventures might make for a better movie. She went from being cornered by the authorities, to overthrowing a powerful crime lord (and then she summoned a fallen Sith). Wouldn’t you like to know more?

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  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    So, of the top 20 movies, I have seen exactly none of them. I wonder what that says about me.

    And, in recent decades, we’ve seen that men, by and large, are willing to go to movies—even action-adventure movies—with strong female leads.

    Gotta take this opportunity to put in a plug for Atomic Blonde. Charlize Theron kicks ass in that movie.

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  5. Michael Reynolds says:

    Also, I suspect men are faster to adopt new technology, the small screen, the mobile screen, rather than the theater. That may skew the numbers.

    Even without that, movies are a bad metric because of the way movies are constructed. 90-120 minutes demands a compressed story arc relative to say, TV or novels. The brevity of the format favors action over character development. Action from whom? Cops, spies, soldiers, robots, thieves and superheroes. Action places a premium on literal physical strength rather than anything less obvious. That’s why despite the story’s cooked numbers James makes the obvious point that all the top grossing movies are male-driven action flicks.

    TV is a very different world. In TV Gray’s Anatomy, a female-driven show, can stay on the air from the Pleistocene to today. You have a format that favors character over action. Ditto novels.

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  6. James Joyner says:

    @MarkedMan: I think the order is a function of who has the bigger name, not who plays the lead. One example that has always stuck in my head was that Jack Nickolson, who played the Joker, was billed ahead of Michael Keaton in “Batman” despite the latter playing the titular character and getting the bulk of the screen time.

    @R. Dave: I haven’t seen the flick and, indeed, know nothing about it. I’m just looking at the listings.

    @Kathy: “Flops” are based on expectations and ROI. “Solo” was a “Star Wars” spin-off and extremely expensive to make. It both underperformed and grossed more than just about every other movie.

    @OzarkHillbilly: Haven’t seen it. My favorite female-led action flick is “A Long Kiss Goodnight,” with Geena Davis. Sam Jackson plays a fantastic sidekick.

    @Michael Reynolds: Agreed all around.

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  7. MarkedMan says:

    @R. Dave:

    Hm, is Emily Blunt generally thought of as the lead

    Sure. At the time Emily Blunt was already a known commodity who could fill seats in a movie theater. Krasinski was known as a comic TV character on a beloved cult show, and definitely not someone that would draw in customers for a drama/horror flick on name alone. I’m willing to bet Blunt made more money and wouldn’t have appeared in it unless she was billed as the lead.

    “Lead” does have something to do with how important the character is and how much screen time they have. But there is another meaning of the term wrt marketing. As James notes below, Jack Nicholson received top billing (literally, listed at the top of the playbill) over Michael Keaton and no doubt received more money because his name was more important to filling seats on the first weekend of release, and generating buzz.

    And for the purposes of this study, that is as important as the first definition. The Hollywood truism is that you can’t lead with a female actress. That you shouldn’t bill the female first because it won’t draw in as many customers as billing a male first. Assuming Gracenote lists in the same order as the stars negotiated with the studios, this study shows that is no longer the case, if it ever was.

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  8. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner:

    My favorite female-led action flick is “A Long Kiss Goodnight,” with Geena Davis

    I second that

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  9. R. Dave says:

    @MarkedMan: Fair enough, but I guess I was riffing off a minor detail in the OP rather than responding to its main point. Speaking only for myself, I tend to think of the “lead” in a movie as the main character around whom the events and themes of the movie revolve. So, just as I consider Daisy Ridley as the lead of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, notwithstanding the fact that Hamill and Ford apparently got top billing in the industry databases, I saw Krasinksi as the lead of A Quiet Place.

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  10. PJ says:

    @MarkedMan:

    It has long been an “accepted fact” in Hollywood that investments in a movie that stars a female often lose money. This shows that is not true. The fact that the top ten movies are all male led is a demonstration of that “accepted fact” rather than a refutation of the study. The key point is that female led movies, regardless of budget size, fared well on average.

    It has also been an “accepted fact” that having a non white cast in movie directed towards the general audience will doom it at the box office.

    Look at the top grossing movie, an almost entirely black cast.
    Look at top grossing live-action comedy, an almost entirely Asian cast.

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  11. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    The problem is that studios like tentpole blockbusters like Avengers and Star Wars not because of the box office, but because of merchandising and selling DVDs. There is no romantic comedy that still makes the same type of money that Star Wars, a movie produced forty years ago, still makes.

    You could argue that you can see women in movies other than romcoms, but that alone creates a huge distortion for this type of study.

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  12. wr says:

    @MarkedMan: “I’m willing to bet Blunt made more money and wouldn’t have appeared in it unless she was billed as the lead.”

    Unless maybe she happened to be married to her co-star, who was also the co-writer, director and executive producer…

    She does have top billing, though.

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  13. EddieInCA says:

    @wr:

    Exactly.

    As the person who did two early budgets for the movie, I can say, with certainty that Krazinski made A LOT more money than his wife, and co-star, Emily Blunt.

    Her one movie as the lead, “Girl on the Train”, was a moderate hit. She’s due out in the new Mary Poppins movie, so we’ll see if she can open it properly. Most of her “hits” are in co-starring roles, with other leading men or women, (Bruce Willis, Tom Cruise, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, Charlize Theron, and Chris Hemsworth, to name a few). I think she’s a very talented actress, but she still made less than her husband on the movie they did together.

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  14. MarkedMan says:

    @Andre Kenji de Sousa:

    Look at the top grossing movie, an almost entirely black cast.
    Look at top grossing live-action comedy, an almost entirely Asian cast.

    Yep. And both of those movies have also caused a lot of head scratching at the studios. Black Panther is especially interesting. In one way it is a conventional blockbuster Marvel property. Plenty of cool gadgets and characters that can be plastered on book bags and water bottles and sold as toys. But each Marvel movie also deals with a few emotional issues and in this case several of them were explicitly “Black” issues. (The larger moral issue was more of an America/China type of issue: given that Wakanda is now a superpower, do they continue to only look out for their own interests, or do they have obligations to the less powerful?)

    Crazy Rich Asians might also generate some follow-ons, or it might not. One thing that was a bit ironic about that one is how it was viewed in America as incredibly woke. But in Singapore it was viewed a bit differently, because it portrayed Singapore as essentially a Chinese country. In South Asia, unlike the West, the Chinese are not viewed as a minority. In fact, quite the opposite. And while there is certainly a large portion of the Singaporean population that are ethnically Chinese, they are considered very distinct from the new arrivals and tourists from mainland China, who are viewed as crude and rude, endlessly pushing their way in and trying to impose their values onto everyone. Singapore is actually a part of the Malay peninsula and so ethnic Malays also make up a large part of the citizenry. As do ethnically Indian citizens. So while we in the West view the casting of the movie as a welcome relief from whitewashing, some of my Singaporean and Malaysian friends are a little bothered by its yellow-washing, although such things don’t cause nearly the commotion they do here.

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  15. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner: “A Long Kiss Goodnight,” slipped by me, I’ll have to look it up. Samuel Jackson is good no matter what he does.

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  16. Stormy Dragon says:

    18. The Meg

    The Meg also had a female lead! #SharksToo

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  17. Guarneri says:

    Yea. All that deep analysis. Plus women are better to look at…………

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  18. MarkedMan says:

    @wr:

    Unless maybe she happened to be married to her co-star, who was also the co-writer, director and executive producer…

    I had no idea. I guess I should start reading People magazine.

    So yeah, of course that completely changes her equation. I’m sure they structured the deal in such a way that they collectively retained the most money possible, with the best tax ramifications.

    What I’m really having trouble wrapping my head around is that this means she lives in the same house as Krasinski. And that means she lives in the house that Jimmy Kimmel pranks in the most invasive ways possible every Christmas.

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  19. Gustopher says:

    @Guarneri: and you can pay them less, which makes the movies even more profitable!

    (And men really should take better care of themselves, so they are better to look at)

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  20. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: I would note the same fact about me, except that I do most of my non-TV movie watching on the plane to and from Korea every year, so I get to see all the big movies from the last 6 or 8 months all at once. For me, the ultimate in binge watching.

    Moreover, my reaction on both of my most recent trips was “wow, I’m sure glad I didn’t spend $10+ to watch that in a theater,” but that’s mostly me being tight with a buck.

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  21. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    but that’s mostly me being tight with a buck.

    Me to a tee.

    In “Atomic Blonde“, Theron does a fight scene that is one continuous 10-15 minute take. It is non stop balls to walls kick ass kicking ass at the end of which she is spent, barely standing on her feet and her opponent is just as spent, and they aren’t acting. It is that intense.

    Anyway, anybody who’d ever watched “Monster’s Ball” knows Charlize is nobody to fck with.

    ETA anybody who’d ever watched “Monster” knows Charlize is nobody to fck with.

    Monster’s Ball belongs to Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry and Heath Ledger.

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  22. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    @MarkedMan: I know that you quoted the wrong guy, but being an Asian in the West and being an Asian in Asia are completely different things. Asians in Asia can be pretty insensitive to problems that Asians in the West face.

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  23. MarkedMan says:

    @Andre Kenji de Sousa: Sorry about the misquote. But you are right about the different perspective around the world. I had to point out to someone that although it counts as “wokeness” in the US that an American of Japanese descent plays an ethnically Chinese or Korean character because, hey, Asians can play Asians right? It’s a win. But it certainly isn’t seen as cultural sensitivity in China or Korea. But again, probably not as big of a deal there (aside from rampant anti-Japanese prejudice in general) because they have this curious notion that actors are acting. They somehow have the quaint belief that since actors in real life mostly read and talk for a living and actually never were medieval warlords or cowboys or space aliens, it is possible that they could also play someone who is simply from a different country. Crazy talk…

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  24. de stijl says:

    Dr. Joyner,

    You don’t realize this, but you are inadvertantly employing a very male vs. female Gamergate premise to this analysis. (Which is a bad thing.)

    It’s not a competition. It’s a big, expanding pie. A good story, well told, well shot, with believably human characterization is the metric.

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  25. de stijl says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    In “Atomic Blonde“, Theron does a fight scene

    Dude, that was bad ass! That was a scene straight out of The Raid with a white girl as the ass-kicker who also got her ass kicked simultaneously.

    Don’t forget the whole of Mad Max (2015). She was the boss. Max was to Furiosa as Feral Kid was to (The Road Warrior 1981) Max. A useful sidekick.

    Atomic Blonde Stairwell fight scene (3 Min)
    https://youtu.be/XarGS1AeEcE

    People don’t go down permanently after a cool take-down by the “hero / heroine” in action movies.

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  26. de stijl says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    The Charlize Theron stairwell fight scene is strongly reminiscent of the Viggo Mortenson steam room fight scene in Eastern Promises (2007)

    NSFW – Viggo Mortenson is buck-ass naked through the whole fight scene. Plus it’s ultra violent.
    Eastern Promises – Steam Room fight scene (3 min, 20 sec)
    https://youtu.be/XVZZSVlDXz0

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  27. de stijl says:

    And way, waaay less “realistic” but the proto-fight scene of realistic fight scenes it spawned is from They Live (1988). Keith David and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper that goes on for a full 5 minutes.

    They Live – full fight scene 5:52
    https://youtu.be/4-MVMbm6c0k

    Brutal. Comic. Both. Awesome!

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  28. de stijl says:

    Seriously, check out The Raid and The Raid 2.

    There’s not a whole lot of plot or characterization, but the fights are mind alteringly good.

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  29. de stijl says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Also, I suspect men are faster to adopt new technology, the small screen, the mobile screen, rather than the theater. That may skew the numbers.

    Utterly unproven premise!

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  30. James Pearce says:

    While women account for about half of movie tickets sold, Haubegger said she believed the greater success of films starring women and people of color can be attributed to a thirst for fresh storylines.

    I think there’s something to this. It might explain why the new Ghostbusters or Ocean’s 8 movies didn’t light up the box office. Yeah, they had women and POC, but the material was far from “fresh.”

    At any rate, I’m not really that comfortable using the box office to measure the film business anymore. It counts a certain type of film, the special-effects laden franchise movie, and that’s about it. A Quiet Place is the only film in the top 20 that’s not a sequel, a remake, or an adaptation, and its presence on the list is a fluke. A lot of good work never made it to the silver screen, and that’s going to continue for some time to come.

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  31. MarkedMan says:

    Blockbusters are a separate thing. They are simply one kind of movie made primarily for international audiences. The rules of that game are as strict as the rules to composing a 16th century symphony*. Humor must be slapstick and not wordplay. Violence must be over the top. Love interest has to be of the minimally demonstrable kind and not crucial to the plot.

    I once saw the movie “Roxanne” in a theater in Suva, Fiji. It is comprised of equal parts slapstick, wordplay and romance. The audience was also split into rough thirds: Ethnic Fijians, Fijians of Indian descent, and ex-pats. I had already seen it so I spent a lot of time watching the audience. Everyone laughed and enjoyed the slapstick. The ex-pats really liked the word-play. The ethnic Fijians also laughed at the romance parts. Not “ha ha it’s funny” laughs but rather “this is really embarrassing, I can’t believe I’m in a public place watching this” laughter. On the other hand my impression was the Indian side of the crowd were more interested in the romance than the expats.

    *I think. I really don’t know anything about sixteenth century symphonies.

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  32. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    “I think. I really don’t know anything about sixteenth century symphonies.”

    I don’t recall there being any “symphonies,” per se in the 1500-1599s (B.A. Music History, 1975), but the symphony is a specific form where the conventions about what parts it’s made up of haven’t changed much as far as I’ve seen, so you know enough for your comparison to be valid as long as Blockbuster movies are the same kind of defined form.

    ETA: Which I will take your word on as I may remember somethings from musicology, but know nothing about film studies.

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  33. MarkedMan says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: No film studies myself, although I have a family member deep into it. My point is purely observational. I was at that showing of Roxanne thirty years ago, when the international blockbuster thing was just starting to take off. But for the formula is pretty apparent. Good looking heroes takes on a task bigger then themselves. They are uniformly good, although all the sidekicks are quirky. There is usually some kind of tech genius, although they often have some kind of personality defect too. (Ving Rhames’ Luther in MI is an exception to this rule.) The love interest is normally of the “will they or won’t they” variety, as this is the easiest way to insure there is minimum physical contact. The team has a bunch of successes. Then failures. Discord arrises. All seems lost. Friendship and Camaraderie eventually win out and they pull off victory in one epic move (usually by taking a risk that even a moments thought would reveal to be stupid and unnecessary). Depending on the budget there will be more fistfights than car chases, or more car chases than explosions. The production company is very, very hands on. In addition to heavy script control and a willingness to change directors in mid-stream, they have a long long list of things that much be in there to promote other films, or toys or video games. Compare this with films like “The Green Book” or “Mid90s”.

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  34. de stijl says:

    @MarkedMan:

    That breakdown was so true.

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  35. James Joyner says:

    @de stijl: The title of the NYT piece asserts, “Movies Starring Women Earn More Than Male-Led Films.” That’s a competitive framing. I’m amenable to the finding but, based on the lede and the research design, I was skeptical. Even moreso considering that, for 2018, it’s certainly not the case when one looks at the top 50 grossing films.

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