Back in early 2012, I took two posts by Australian author Joel Shepherd as a jumping off point to look at women in action film and Hollywood in general. (Shepherd had sold film rights to his military SF series, the Cassandra Kresnov series, which features a female synthetic soldier, and then got to experience Hollywood development hell. Shepherd is also the author of the A Trial of Blood and Steel fantasy series, also featuring a female protagonist.)
Specifically, I looked first in Death of the Female Movie Star? We’re Just Getting Started Part 1 at how the view of women in action has changed, and that women have made slow advances in big budget and action film through a trickle, trickle erosion that did involve a lot of sexy costumes. In Part 2, I looked at what had gone on so far in late 2011 and early 2012 and what was coming up in 2012, which even the media then noted was being a banner year for women in action films. In July 2012, I briefly checked the temperature with How Are You Ladies Doing. And in May 2013, nearly a year later, in It’s Time for Women in Film, I went over what had happened in 2012 and early 2013 and what seemed to be shaping up for the summer season.
So I figured I’d keep going with this, if only for my own curiosity. So let’s review first how it went for the “lady” actors in 2013. That year was less packed with women-led action films than 2012, due to comics adaptations and old franchises and male action stars – a number of which flopped badly — but there were still quite a few, as well as action films in which females played pivotal, kick ass roles. It turned out that the year showed that the Female Movie Star isn’t dead at all.
Women continued to be the leads or co-leads of many horror films in 2013. These low budgeted films racked up some bucks, like Insidious 2 taking in $161 million on a tiny budget, equally small film Mama making $146 million, The Purge earning nearly $90 million and a sequel, and The Conjuring a whopping $318 million. The much anticipated reboot of Evil Dead with a female lead, Jane Levy, has made over $97 million. The rebooted Carrie, with a female director, not quite so hotly anticipated and less warmly received domestically, still made over $84 million worldwide on a small budget. As previously noted, these aren’t, by and large, the “sexy” movies that get a lot of attention and credit when action films are discussed. But they have consistently been a money making area and one where women actors have been steadily chipping away into major positions – so much so that they helped the archetype of the kick ass woman fighting monsters to become a standard expectation. The growth in horror film’s fortunes tends to be cyclical, but with the Internet and streaming becoming big factors, as well as global box office, horror is a mainstay in which women have essentially conquered, and may start to be conquering with female directors as well.
Over in animation, we had The Croods, which was a big budget father-daughter tale, and it took in over $587 million globally. Then there was Epic, an international, female led fantasy tale that took in over $268 million. But the big mama of the year was Disney’s Frozen, a spin on The Snow Queen that turned it into a tale of two sisters with a hit soundtrack. Frozen has taken in nearly a billion and counting.
But that’s again animation, which folks discount (never mind how it’s shaping the minds of the young,) and don’t feel necessarily makes an impact on creating female movie stars. So how did they do in the adventure/thriller/SFF area in 2013? The young actresses – the up and coming movie stars – besides horror films, were mostly regulated in 2013 to mid-budget gambles based on successful books if they wanted to be leads. The Host and Beautiful Creatures had mid-sized budgets and so basically flopped with $48 million and $60 million in box office respectively, early in the year. The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones was able to make a good bit past its budget at $90 million, so there is a possibility for a sequel. Spring Breakers was a hit, due to its miniscule budget that made its over $30 million take impressive. The Bling Ring also had a tiny budget and made pocket money – not what is really wanted from director Sofia Coppola, but not disreputable on the indie scene.
Also on lower budgets, The Call, as previously noted, with a small budget and no hoopla made $68 million to be a hit in the early part of the year, with Halle Berry – a female movie star. The Book Thief, a WWII drama, made respectably over $50 million. Women teaming up with men as co-leads did well. Melissa McCarthy’s action comedy with Jason Bateman, Identity Thief, made nearly $174 million on a medium budget, cementing that McCarthy was a bankable star. Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters also on a medium budget made over $225 million. Kick Ass 2 centered on the Hit Girl character, played by up and coming teen star Chloe Moretz, and made a respectable $60 million on a low budget.
It was, however, the film The Heat that had the most impact, teaming up Melissa McCarthy again with Sandra Bullock – a female movie star. The Heat had a medium budget and wracked in nearly $230 million. Not only was The Heat important because it was a female buddy cop movie, but because it had proved a better bet than a number of big budget movies that flopped that summer or made bank but nowhere near what their budgets intended. This is consistently the pattern Hollywood takes with women-led action pictures, comedy or drama – go low on the budget and hope to create a sizable profit, at least domestically.
On the big budget end, there were The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the sequel to the extremely successful The Hunger Games, based on the best-selling YA series, and Gravity, the science fiction astronaut thriller from Alfonso Cuaron, that starred Sandra Bullock and almost entirely Sandra Bullock. Catching Fire, which was granted a budget nearly double the first movie, launched with over $150 million its first weekend, and chocked up over $863 million in global box office, about equally split between foreign and domestic takes. That increased the profits from the first movie considerably. This movie, along with an Oscar nominated supporting turn in American Hustle (a medium budget con-artist thriller film that has earned over $230 million,) has basically firmly placed Jennifer Lawrence as a female movie star well before her 25th birthday, able to do nearly any action picture she would like once she finishes her Hunger Games duties, but also suffused with indie cred to do any smaller drama she likes.
Gravity had a $100 million budget, due to the special effects. Nonetheless, it wasn’t considered to become as big a film as the blockbusters of summer, given its subject matter. It had been delayed a year and was viewed as a gamble relying on Cuaron’s fans. It not only has gotten a big bucket of Oscar nominations and awards, including for Bullock’s performance, but it has made over $703 million, the better chunk of it from foreign box office. Bullock was paid $20 million for the role, and gets 15% of the gross. It’s estimated she’s earned about $70 million from the movie so far. Of course, Bullock was already a bankable movie star with action credits of significance, and she’s well aware she has maybe only a few more years to be the action heroine that Hollywood currently allows. But her post-ingenue success in big budget movies and action hits (The Heat is already getting a sequel,) and her financial deals from it paves the way for some younger actresses like Lawrence to get big movies and big salaries. Instead of trickle, trickle, it was a rushing river.
On top of the more leading roles, women played major, ass kicking roles in successful movies such as Iron Man 3, Fast and Furious 6, Man of Steel, World War Z, Despicable Me 2, The Wolverine, Star Trek Into Darkness, Oblivion, Pacific Rim, Now You See Me, Percy Jackson 2: Sea of Monsters, Elysium, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Oz the Great and Powerful, Thor: The Dark World, We’re the Millers, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, Warm Bodies, Olympus Has Fallen and Riddick.
So while 2013 was not as much a feature year for female action leads as 2012, it was a year that announced that the women were here to stay. And with big male-led flops like Lone Ranger, R.I.P.D. and A Good Day to Die Hard, the women often looked like a better bet, because again, Hollywood pays them less and the claim that they can’t move foreign box office has been proved false these past few years, even for less successful films. The lack of success for YA female-led adaptation movies besides The Hunger Games franchise you might think would put a kibosh on that as an avenue for the younger actresses. But more are on board for 2014 and down the road. Some of them will feature male teens with female supporting roles or ensemble teams, but since some money can be made out of it, the trend is likely to continue for awhile longer.
Does that mean that 2014 is going to be a giant year for the women? We’ll take a look at that in Part 2.