(See Part 1 here.)
So, has the female movie star died off as we enter into the full 2014 movie season? No, and not just in the area of the big budget action movies. “Women’s” pictures – comedies and dramas led by women – also have made money these past few years and upped profiles. August: Osage County, a female star-studded Broadway play adaptation, for example, made on a small budget of salary-cut-for-the-indie-prestige with the Weinsteins, nearly $60 million in 2013.
In fact, women-led films — drama, comedy or action — have in recent years consistently counteracted the current claim that the middle-budget film is dying out in favor of the big tent poles. The women are cheaper and given less investment in budgets, as previously visited, and so when their films do well, the profits are higher than bigger movies that just break even. More women-led films made over $100 million in 2013 than in 2012, when they were more highlighted in PR and media attention.
Of course, it’s not necessarily making movie stars if the women are regulated to a mid-low budget ghetto. And women directors are still being shut out of both big tentpole films and lower budget Oscar contenders. But there is upwards pressure. If Sandra Bullock can get $20 million and 15% of the gross for Gravity and Angelina Jolie can fund and direct movies, that means younger female actors can push for more green and better deals. Actors like Jennifer Lawrence, Kristen Stewart, Mila Kunis and Emma Stone are already bonafide movie stars making millions. Actors like Natalie Portman and Charlize Theron are also in the A-list club with large salaries for their bigger projects.
Does that mean then that 2014 is going to be a super year for women actors in film, though, and in the big action movies? The answer is that it is and it isn’t. 2014 is shaping up to be a good year in terms of women being highly present and doing major, high profile roles in action films. There are, however, less women-led action films in the pipeline for 2014 than the previous two years. Some of those films coming out are likely to do very well at the box office, but there is the inevitable desire in Hollywood to slow down the supposed “risk” of the females, and take on the male security blanket action pics and hope that the male stars can keep milking the world foreign box office. The reality is that if your woman-led action picture does well, you don’t get nearly the status in the industry that you do if your man-led action picture does well, and so regardless of the box office, the tendency is to advance the males, with male directors. That means women have to continue with trickle, trickle erosion and still being mostly seen as the eye candy while they kick ass.
So 2014 is going to have its comic superhero movies, old world myth fests and action spectaculars led by men and special effects. The numbers of recent studies about women’s participation in film are not heartening. And yet the tipping point we seem to have witnessed in 2012 does not seem to be tipping backwards. It’s just continuing on its sneaky roll, with Hollywood now automatically putting in a female member or more for every action team, an increase in female power villains, and a lot more excitement about the actresses in big power flicks than most of the male stars. That’s…annoying, really. Who likes riding in scanty clothes on what continues to be a slow moving glacier? But what’s becoming normal – having the women there, kicking ass and frequently leading – is shaping the future of movies slowly and surely. Hollywood likes its myths, but it likes money too. And audiences have shown that they clearly don’t care if it’s a woman or a man in the lead, or in any other role.
So what is coming up for women in the action pictures, all kinds, in 2014:
Women-led action pics for 2014 include first off the YA adaptation Divergent. A lot of folks are seeing this as Hunger Games lite, but the books have a solid fan base who don’t seem unhappy with what they’ve heard about the film so far. The film is coming out in late March (at what is now the start of the “summer” season,) probably doesn’t have a large budget, and seems to be getting a lot more studio support than previous female-centric YA adaptations last year. Then there is surprisingly the film Veronica Mars, based on the cult t.v. show. Veronica Mars got a lot of attention off of its Kickstarter partial budget campaign, which is now making the film a bigger deal, and fan enthusiasm is high, while the budget is very low. Veronica Mars brings the television sensibility to the film – that the woman can be the detective/action person who leads and everyone else circles around – so even if it isn’t a huge hit, it’s going to help and definitely ups Kristen Bell’s profile.
The Hunger Games returns later in the year with Mockingjay, Part 1, which at this point is likely to be enormous and gunning for the billionaires club (which woman-led animated film Frozen has now apparently entered.) Another big release is going to be Jupiter Ascending from the Wachowski siblings and starring Mila Kunis. While the confusing Cloud Atlas just broke even based on foreign revenue and didn’t do them much favors, Jupiter Ascending returns the Wachowskis to Matrix action territory, and anticipation is moderately high with a July launch at the height of the season. Kunis will be assisted by popular actor Channing Tatum, but it is her show that is being bet on as the ultimate Chosen One. Another big one is Maleficent, the Disney live action retelling of their Sleeping Beauty story from the perspective of the villain. Angelina Jolie, using her best menace, plays the title role in a very big budget gamble. Maleficent highlights the current delight in the female power villain, rather than just the femme fatale.
Smaller, women-led action and suspense films for 2014 include In the Blood, Jane Got a Gun, Jessabelle, No Good Deed, How to Catch a Monster, The Den, Under the Skin, The Scribbler and Oculus. Adventure films like a wider global opening for Australian outback movie Tracks, and Reese Witherspoon’s similar Wild will also be offered. A passel of women-led comedies with various degrees of action/suspense are also getting attention for 2014. Melissa McCarthy headlines in Tammy, about a woman who runs out of luck and then goes road tripping with her grandmother, played by Susan Sarandon. The Other Woman, Walk of Shame, Single Mom’s Club, and Mom’s Night Out are all mid-budget screwball comedies geared somewhat for a female audience, marking Hollywood’s acknowledgement that these films in the Bridesmaids vein can make money for them. Films about difficult women such as the anticipated thriller Gone Girl, noir film Serena, and Tim Burton’s drama Big Eyes are also making a presence. (Musical extravaganza Annie and animated Legends of Oz: Dorothy Returns are there for the younger set.)
Still, that’s clearly not as strong a roster of women-centric film as the previous few years. But what’s happening in the other big action movies of the summer paints a more interesting picture. In the comic books/superhero area, we have Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier, in which Scarlett Johansen’s Black Widow is the principle sidekick, marking her fourth major turn in the Marvel movies as the special black ops character, and Marvel is looking at doing a solo Black Widow film as well. Also out from Marvel is Guardians of the Galaxy, which has SF It Girl Zoe Saldana as a deadly part of the central team of thieves and Karen Gillan as one of the main villains, as well as Glenn Close in an authority role. In the non-coordinated Marvel franchises, Amazing Spider Man 2 comes out with Emma Stone returning as love interest/gal Friday Gwen Stacey, as well as Sally Fields as Aunt May and adds Embeth Davidtz as Peter Parker’s mom. X-Men: Days of Future Past time travel team up is maybe the most hotly anticipated film of the summer, with a huge roster of stars, including some of the top females around: Halle Berry, Jennifer Lawrence, Ellen Page, and Anna Paquin chief among them.
Sin City also returns finally with a sequel, A Dame to Kill For, featuring Jessica Alba as the central character of the ensemble and Eva Green, Juno Temple, Jaime King, Rosario Dawson, Jamie Chung, Lady Gaga, Julia Garner, and Callie Hernandez in main roles. And interestingly enough 300, the most male-centric comics adaptation around, decided in its sequel 300: Rise of an Empire to feature a possibly real historical figure: Queen Artemisia, a female naval commander of the Persians against the Greeks, as the chief opponent, played by Eva Green – who seems to be quite busy — with Lena Headey, now of Game of Thrones fame, reprising her role as the Spartans’ Queen Gorgo. Sure it’s eye candy for sex scenes, but making a woman the principle antagonist in the testosterone filled franchise says a lot about the shifting climate. (And Rise of an Empire has already taken in $152 million in its first week.)
The trend continues outside of the comic book movies. Emily Blunt plays mentor warrior woman to Tom Cruise’s time looped soldier in Edge of Tomorrow. Elizabeth Olson, Sally Hawkins and Juliette Binoche are playing main roles in Godzilla. Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain do the honors in Interstellar, while Kate Mara and Rebecca Hall do them in Transcendence. Nicola Peltz assumes the robot partner-teen role in Transformers 4: Age of Extinction. Keri Russell will help anchor Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. In Hercules, Ingrid Bolso Berdal will be a kick-ass huntress while sports model Irina Shayk will be Hercules’ probably not genteel princess love interest.
In the less SFF thriller area, Cate Blanchett and Julianne Moore have already played the tough female sidekicks in Monuments Men and Non-Stop respectively. The women of Fast and Furious are coming back for number seven. Martial arts fighter Ronda Rousey and stuntwoman Natalie Burn will be kicking ass in Expendables 3. Chloe Grace Moretz and Melissa Leo will back up Denzel Washington in a reboot of television’s The Equalizer. Women will have central team roles in The Art of the Steal, Rob the Mob, and action comedy A Million Ways to Die in the West.
Over in the kids/teen area, Kaya Scodelario will be the tough female teen who disrupts the teen boy prison of The Maze Runner, adapted from the hit YA book series. Megan Fox, Whoopi Goldberg and Abby Elliot will be basically running the Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot. Actresses have major voice roles in the big hit Lego Movie and upcoming How to Train Your Dragon 2.
So women are highly visible in action roles and elsewhere in 2014, maintaining a need a kick ass woman position rather than a majority of “The Girl” positions, and in place to make some money both low and high-end. Blockbusters shaping up for 2015 look to continue that trend, including the last Hunger Games movie. It will be interesting to see how the season actually develops. (Meanwhile, women continue to take over television.) Female movie stars are alive and well, but having established a slice, erosion does need to move the statistics forward.