So let’s look at the current landscape:
Women’s roles in action movies have been sporadic in their type and prominence over the decades, often depending on economic issues of the time. While big budget projects featuring women have been rare, on the small and mid-size budget front, women have made significant progress. Often these action films are in science fiction, fantasy and particularly horror, a direct result of a shift in the 1980’s – which includes Terminator and Alien – to bring the female slice and dice victims more regularly front and center and also able to strike back at the monsters instead of just being rescued or killed.
Resident Evil, the zombie franchise based on the popular game, has become the venerable reliable of this on the B-movie action front. Starring Milla Jovovich, the first film had a decent budget cost for 2002 of $33 million and earned $40 million in the U.S. and over $100 million worldwide. The sequel increased the budget and did even more in the U.S. and $129 million worldwide, the third movie upping that to $147 worldwide. The fourth movie, which also increased the role of female sidekick Ali Larter, got a budget increase to $60 million, and did that in domestic sales with a whopping $236 million in foreign box office for a total take of nearly $300 million. The fifth movie, Resident Evil: Retribution, is due out this year.
Joining RE was Underworld in 2003, starring Kate Beckinsale. The elaborate vampire-werewolf film cost $22 million to make and took in $52 million in the States and $95 million worldwide. The sequel built on that for a $111 million world take. The third movie in the franchise, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, was a prequel and did not star Beckinsale in the main role. That movie had a bigger budget of $35 million. It made a healthy profit, but the domestic take was only $45 million in the U.S. and $91 million worldwide. So they brought Beckinsale back this year to star in Underworld Awakening with a much bigger budget invested — $70 million. In the only two weeks it’s been out in theaters, the film has earned over $48 million in the U.S. and a world take of over $88 million.
It’s tempting for many people to ignore these numbers and to dismiss these franchises as unimportant and small impact in the sea of testosterone action films, their budgets not large enough to value and their appeal credited to the hormones of young men for sex and violence and the special effects. But this is exactly how the war of attrition is waged – films that get made on easier, less risky terms, create profit and establish having a female action lead as perfectly normal, even desirable. The numbers aren’t unimportant to Hollywood, especially when merchandising is factored in. Replication occurs and so in the strange but successful low budget mash-up Alien Vs. Predator, for instance, the lead character is a non-white actress named Sanaa Lathan, something that is not seen as remarkable at all. Even when women aren’t the leads, they have become a requirement for team characters in bigger budget films.
And Hollywood is then willing to increase the risk somewhat by trying female leads on martial arts thrillers, with less of a safeguard of merchandising, the cult followings of SFF and game adaptation profits than something like Underworld. We saw that when in the dog days of last summer when they drop the small fry action films, we got Colombiana, starring Zoe Saldana, a non-white actress again, cashing in on her Star Trek capital, a revenge thriller that cost $40 million to make. It grossed $10 million in its opening weekend, almost made its budget in domestic take and made a respectable if not exciting profit of nearly $61 million worldwide. Also in 2011, the film Hanna, starring Saoirse Ronan, made a splash. It cost $30 million, took in $43 million in the U.S. and nearly $64 million worldwide. Recently, we then had Haywire, starring Gina Carano in the quiet release zone of January-February. The spy film, coming from venerated auteur Steven Soderbergh, had a $23 million budget and in its first two weeks has made over $16 million in the U.S. and over $19 million worldwide with a long lead time to earn more. And then there is One For the Money, a throwaway film adapted from the bestselling mystery series and starring Catherine Hegel. While not likely to be a real success, given its poor marketing support, that the film managed to get made at all after over a decade in development hell shows an interest, and the film did take in a solid $11 million its opening weekend. Individually, you might not notice these films much. Collectively, they mark a sea change.
The real fun, however, is set to come over the course of 2012. In the up-coming months, including in the blockbuster summer, we’ll be getting films like Gone, a low budget kidnapping thriller starring Amanda Seyfried as a kickass former victim saving her sister; Brave, Pixar’s first animated feature with a female lead (by which they will make up for the disastrous male-centered ad campaign for Disney’s Tangled; ) and Gemma Arterton sharing the spotlight with Jeremy Renner for Hansel and Gretal: Witch Hunters. We’re getting two highly talked about views of Snow White – the comic Mirror, Mirror with Julia Roberts and Lily Collins, and the dark war epic Snow White and the Huntsman starring Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron.
Chris Hemsworth, bringing his appeal as the star of Thor, plays the Huntsman in that film, but he doesn’t even rate an appearance on the main poster, which features the dwarves behind an armored and besworded Stewart, whose Twilight following is expected to be the bigger draw, and media publicity has concentrated on playing up Theron as the evil queen. While Stewart shared the spotlight in Twilight with boy candy Robert Paterson and Tyler Lautner, her Bella was still the woman in the center of the action and the financial success of those films has led to a keen interest in Hollywood on making YA adaptations and teen friendly films with female leads.
The big movie, however, is The Hunger Games, adapted from Suzanne Collins’ bestselling YA series. The film, starring Jennifer Lawrence (already a big contributor to women’s action through the acclaimed Winter’s Bone thriller and a key role in X-Men: First Class,) is probably going to be seen by many – and sometimes marketed as such – as another Twilight romance, and thus, as the property of teenage girls, dismissed as important. In reality, The Hunger Games is a post-apocalyptic SF war epic with a substantial following of young male readers. With a more substantial budget of $75 million and already a fairly extensive marketing campaign, it’s a bigger gamble, but early response to the trailer by largely happy fans suggests the film is going to do well, generate a ton of media over its Mad Max: Thunderdome set-up and vault Lawrence up the casting lists into at least Stewart territory.
With women also having sizable, if not lead, kickass roles in action movies like This Means War, Battleship, The Avengers, Prometheus, Batman 3 and World War Z, the up-tick has been enough to get media attention pondering a “new” trend of women in action, rather than just expressing the routine astonishment that an individual woman-led picture makes any money. And the process is set to continue with future movies like John Carpenter’s Darkchylde, based on the comic series, Dorothy of Oz, J.J. Abrams’ The Invisible Woman, Sandra Bullock in the SF film Gravity, and James Cameron – who arguably has contributed substantially to increasing the power of female actresses in action and female filmmakers – will do so again in the SF Battle Angel, based on the graphic novel about a female cyborg – a project that may have put more of the kabash on Shepherd’s film option chances. And outside of action, women will be prominent in films as diverse as What to Expect When You’re Expecting, Anna Karenina and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, hitting more markets than just male driven films and following in the wake of The Help’s so far $200 million plus grosses and likely Oscar boost, plus the usual slate of horror films which are still gaining business.
When Tomb Raider came out and made Angelina Jolie a star in 2001, the common belief was that the film had not done spectacularly enough for the hype, because, after all, she was a girl and video game movies don’t do well. But Tomb Raider made nearly $275 million worldwide, quite good for the time, and its weaker, less supported sequel made over $156 million. And nine years later, Salt starring Jolie raked in nearly $300 million. Even Sucker Punch, which drew Shepherd’s ire — a complicated, surreal, Inception-like movie criticized for over-sexualizing its largely female cast in ways that were little different from your average Bond film — managed to break even worldwide. Women led films are bringing in regular revenue and have absolutely no societal problems attracting diverse audiences.
And in television, watched by millions more regularly than films, women have become a staple of action and suspense, helming more and more shows as more cable channels develop original programming, as well as taking prominent roles in ensemble casts and finding more opportunities for female directors and producer/screenwriters. Some shows tank, some soar, just like all shows, but the slow attrition that began way back with shows like The Mod Squad, Police Woman and Charlie’s Angels – happy female form exploiters all – has developed into too many shows to comfortably list. Such gains are sometimes dismissed as making women the second class citizens given t.v. but denied movies, but that’s the sneaky envelope pushing once again. T.V. is becoming an effective launch pad and career enhancer. Just ask the cast of the hit Bridesmaids.
It is a slow and patient slog – a gliding Titanic iceberg if you will – but women do slow and patient well. And the newest generation of young actresses aren’t interested in just doing romcoms and selling fashion and perfume. They are also making their mark in action, from Hermione Granger to a militant Snow White, they’re producing indies, and the holes in the glass ceiling they’re carving are getting substantially larger. Does Hollywood want this? Not particularly, as then they have to share in a wider pool. They certainly don’t trust it. But the money is there and the audiences will happily watch. In an uncertain yet growing world of entertainment, Hollywood will try anything a few times, even if it complains with old excuses. And once they do, women will jam open the doorway, wearing a catsuit, and there’s no going back.