Films with female leads earn more at box office | Film | DW | 08.01.2019
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Films with female leads earn more at box office

Glenn Close's empowering speech at the Golden Globes underlined that women have great stories to tell. A recent study also shows that female-led films are top box office performers — invalidating Hollywood assumptions.

Beyond finding the talent that best fits a role, when major studios cast a movie, they always think about the bottom line, seeking actors who are already popular to boost their production's box office results.

However, it's difficult to quantify the impact of a cast on the success of a movie. Would a flop have been a hit with different actors?

Highly-paid actors do not necessarily lead to the commercial hits producers hope for. Analyzing the relationship between the colossal salaries of top stars and box office failures, business magazine Forbes publishes a list of "the most overpaid actors" every year.

Disproportionate salaries

Sandra Bullock, Adam Sandler and former "sexiest man alive" Johnny Depp have all made it onto the list of Hollywood's most overpaid actors. Studios only earned $2.80 for every dollar invested in the star for Depp's three most important films in 2016.

But the list isn't necessarily an indicator of quality. In 2016, Leonardo DiCaprio ranked eighth on the dreaded Forbes compilation, as his films The Revenant and The Wolf of Wall Street failed to perform at the box office. Nevertheless, DiCaprio was nominated for an Oscar for both roles, and won the Academy Award for his performance in The Revenant.

Renowned for his multi-million paychecks, Mark Wahlberg topped the 2017 Forbes list by starring in box office disappointments such as Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day.  In 2018, the actor's fees were at the center of a scandal when reports revealed that his female co-star, Michelle Williams, only made one percent of Walberg's pay for the reshoot of scenes of Ridley Scott's All the Money in the World

Study overturns Hollywood's preconceptions

Along with current pressure on Hollywood to eliminate its gender pay-gap problem, producers can now review their casting assumptions thanks to a recent US study by agency Creative Artists Agency (CAA) and tech company Shift7, which states that films with strong women's roles outperform male-led movies.

The study looks into 350 films produced from 2014 to 2017; 105 of those productions had a woman in a lead role. The movies are divided into five categories according to their productions budget, and the study concludes that the best performing films in each of these categories all had female lead protagonists.

"There has been an assumption in the industry that female-led films led were generally less successful. We found that the data does not support that assumption," notes CAA's Christy Haubegger.

The best performing films remain comic film adaptations from Marvel and DC, and many of them are centered on male superheroes — but female heroines are increasingly joining the fight.

Daisy Ridley in Star Wars: The Last Jedi (picture-alliance/dpa)

Daisy Ridley's character Rey took center stage in "Star Wars: The Last Jedi"

Stereotypes don't pay

A change can actually be noticed in successful films with male lead roles. The study also checked the performances of films that passed the so-called Bechdel test, which measures the portrayal of women in works of fiction by asking three questions: Does it feature at least two women? Do they talk to each other? And is their conversation about something other than a man?

The three basic requirements were developed by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985. While they were first meant as a "little lesbian joke in an alternative feminist newspaper," as the cartoon author once said, the measurement is now a mainstream standard. "The Bechdel test is a low bar to clear, and it's surprising how many movies don't clear it," stated Liza Chasin in the study's press release.

The study nevertheless found that the basic requirements have been taken into consideration in the latest top blockbusters' storylines. Between 2014 and 2017, 11 films made over a billion dollars at the box office, including Jurassic World, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Avengers: Age of Ultron. While not all of those films are female-led, they all passed the Bechdel test.

The last time a blockbuster raked in over a billion dollars without passing the Bechdel test was in 2012 — The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey's


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