It’s time to get back into the topic I’ve been trying to do annually for a few years now on how female actresses are doing in box office power in the big budget action, SFF, thriller, action comedies and horror films of each year – the mostly bigger money, bigger press or “cool” films that can catapult actors into a very high tax bracket. In the previous year of 2015, women packed a lot of punch in their roles in franchises and led in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and several other quite successful films, so 2015 ended up being a bigger year for the actresses than expected. 2016 did not quite match it, perhaps, in buzz, but at the same time, it marked a genuine shift and momentum that has been developing since 2012. Actresses are still struggling with blocks to their participation in film, but have firmly established themselves in action and big budget, a trend much less likely to reverse at this point.
A good chunk of that is again due to the folks at Star Wars/Disney. Needing a placeholder movie for 2016 to tide people over till Star Wars: The Last Jedi at the end of this year, the Star Wars machine planned their first supplementary prequel film for December 2016 — Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which covers the desperate mission to obtain the plans for the Death Star taken out in the very first Star Wars movie, A New Hope. That was a bit special and the filmmakers did some rather special things with it. They first off made the story a grimmer, tragic, bitter war flick along the lines of The Dirty Dozen or The Guns of Navarone (which let’s face it, always pleases critics and fanboys.) They CGI-wizarded one of the late great actors of the original Star Wars films, Peter Cushing, into a useful cameo and made excellent use of Darth Vader, (nice to hear James Earl Jones having fun with the voice again.) They came up with my now favorite robot, K2, voiced by the beloved Alan Tudyk in full snarky form.
And they decided, even though Force Awakens had been a woman-led story, to have Rogue One be one too, with Felicity Jones playing Jyn Erso, daughter of the designer of the Death Star, who leads a rogue platoon to go get the plans and try to reach her father. They expected the film to do well in December but not quite in Force Awakens territory. But the dramatic caper was a huge hit, coming in as the second most successful movie of the year, with over a billion worldwide box office and still going. Even if you argue that Star Wars has a bit of a built-in safety factor as a franchise, that the new SW movies have both been women led and done phenomenally does more than trickle, trickle erode the argument that women can’t open big movies well. And Rogue One is also set up to have solidified the change in the toy industry after Rey in Force Awakens forced the issue – lots of Jyn action figures and related merchandise, doing very well.
Another big, woman led film in 2016 was the animated Finding Dory, the much awaited sequel to Pixar fave Finding Nemo. The movie focused on the fish with long-term memory problems, Dory voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, trying to find her long lost parents. The heart-warming flick with lots of new characters also did over a billion in world box office. And right behind it was the animated film Zootopia, another animal fantasy film that was originally supposed to star a male protagonist, but the filmmakers decided to go with a female rabbit character voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin. Zootopia also did over a billion in world box office. That means that three of the five top films worldwide for the year featured women protagonists. And a bit further down the list, in the animated category, Disney’s Moana, featuring an island chieftain’s daughter voiced by young actress Auli’I Cravalho, rode a wave of poly-cultural Polynesia to nearly $600 million in world box office and counting since it came out in December.
On somewhat less happy notes, Alice Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to Tim Burton’s successful Alice in Wonderland starring Mia Wasikowska, did a very nice near $300 million in world box office. However, with its big production budget, that meant the movie basically flopped, though it will likely make up the loss with streaming, secondary sales, and merchandise. It’s hard to tell how much star Johnny Depp’s abuse allegations affected the film’s success in the youth market, since the film had a confusing time travel plot and may not have had wide enough distribution in Asia. Since Wasikowska did very well in the first outing of the series and sequels can often flop, it doesn’t knock her gain for being a lead actress quite as much. (She’s already got three other movies in the can.) Another female led film that had a rocky road was Spielberg’s The BFG adaptation, which did nearly $200 million in box office but that was not enough to save it from its huge production budget. The film may one day break even and is unlikely also to hurt its young star, Rebecca Hall, but it was a dent in the otherwise positive kids market.
Also disappointing was the fate of the female ensemble action comedy Ghostbusters, with Kirsten Wiig taking point. The anticipated film did a decent $229+ million in box office, more than half of it domestic, and created an iconic meme out of Kate McKinnon’s character in the film, but its large production budget makes the movie a failed performance, though one that also is likely to break even or eke out a slight profit through long term merchandising, streaming, etc. The film was banned from showing in the critical China market, officially because of how the ghosts are handled, possibly also because there wasn’t a sweet enough deal, but in any case, that deprived Ghostbusters of maybe $200 million in potential box office that boosted the other big films and would have then made Ghostbusters a modest hit. So while it was not a win for encouraging more big female ensemble action films, it doesn’t seem to have blocked them either – several are planned for up-coming years.
A more pleasant surprise for 2016 was the sleeper SF hit Arrival, starring Amy Adams playing a linguist professor helping interpret arrived aliens. The film not only got acclaim as action art but racked up nearly $200 million in box office, which quadrupled its incredibly modest budget, and still going, after debuting with little advance fanfare.
Also in the science fiction area, there was the next to last Divergent film, Divergent: Allegiant, starring Shailene Woodley, with support from a whole host of actresses, including Naomi Watts, Maggie Q and Octavia Spencer. The film did not do as well as the previous two, but did take in over $179 million in box office, which is quite profitable considering its lower budget, and should set things up for a popular last movie in the franchise. 10 Cloverfield Lane, the low budget SF spin-off of J.J. Abrams’ cult monster hit Cloverfield and starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, took in a nice $108+ million in box office. And early in the year, there was the post-apocalyptic alien invasion movie The 5th Wave, starring Chloe Moretz and adapted from the bestselling YA series, which took in nearly $110 million in box office on a very small budget. So again, the notion of a woman leading a SF action film is becoming less a one-off than business as usual.
On the thriller side of the pond, women also rocked it out with Emily Blunt taking the adaptation The Girl on the Train to a $179+ million box office and wide acclaim with a mid-sized budget. Blake Lively also scored with the sleeper hit The Shallows, building on her box office clout from Age of Adeline last year, in which her stranded and injured surfer faces off against a persistent big shark. The movie was made on a tiny budget and took in nearly $120 million in box office. Young Emma Roberts also scored a sleeper hit with the creepy action thriller Nerve, in which gamers are forced to risk their lives. The movie also had quite a small budget and took in over $80 million in box office despite coming out in the middle of the packed, bigger budget summer.
In horror, Lights Out starring Teresa Palmer had a miniscule budget and took in $148+ million in box office, continuing a long time trend of small budget horror with women stars hitting big. Ouija 2: The Origins of Evil, starring Elizabeth Reaser, also took a tiny budget and turned it into over $81 million in box office for the franchise sequel.
While not exactly an “action” related film, women also scored a historical drama hit all by themselves with Hidden Figures, a ground-breaking film about three of the black women mathematicians and engineers who helped in the American space race in the 1960’s. The Oscar nominated film had a small budget, but has racked in nearly $195 million in box office and still going.
Women also continued to make progress headlining movies in raucous comedy and action comedy, areas that previously were dominated by the men and that can pay off due to mid-sized budgets. Mila Kunis headed up a female ensemble in Bad Moms, on a $20 million budget that took in nearly $180 million in box office. The raunchy buddy comedy How to Be Single, starring Dakota Johnson, similarly took in over $112 million on a small budget. Melissa McCarthy’s yearly solo comedy outing, The Boss, didn’t do as well as some of her previous films, but still snagged nearly $80 million on a small budget to give her yet another hit. On the more traditional comic side for women, Bridget Jones’ Baby, the last Bridget Jones movie, didn’t do that well in the U.S. but racked up over $211 million box office worldwide on a very modest budget, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 clocked in with nearly $89 million box office.
Moving on from the women led films, actresses still had strong roles to play in the big action franchises of 2016. In comics land, Marvel’s outings this year in its quest for world domination were Captain America: Civil War and Dr. Strange. Civil War was the biggest movie of the year, with nearly $1.155 billion in world box office, and benefited from the talents of Scarlett Johansson, Elizabeth Olsen, Emily VanCamp and Marisa Tomei. Johansson’s Black Widow not only rocked it in the film but has become such a valuable icon of the main franchise that Marvel has finally green-lit a much wanted Black Widow solo film, though when they’ll fit it in is anyone’s guess. The movie also offered a sneak peek at Marvel’s up-coming Black Panther movie, with Florence Kasumba playing Ayo the security chief and mesmerizing people while barely saying a word in her Civil War cameo, so that looks like it will be fun. Dr. Strange remained controversial and suffered too much Inception-envy, but there’s no denying that Tilda Swinton gave her all in her wise mentor performance. The more funny than expected special effects film took in over $676 million so far in box office.
And then there was Deadpool, a Marvel film placed in an alternate universe of the alternate universe of Twentieth Century Fox’s mutants. The R rated black satire was Ryan Reynolds’ show, but Morena Baccarin, Gina Carano, Brianna Hildebrand and the famous Leslie Uggams gave great performances. Fox followed that with Marvel’s 1980’s set X-Men: Apocalypse, which relied on Sophie Turner’s young Jean Grey and Jennifer Lawrence’s steely Mystique to save the day, along with performances by Rose Byrne, Olivia Munn, Alexandra Shipp, and Lana Condor.
DC’s offerings were first Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the kick-off film in their attempt to imitate Marvel more successfully and set up for the first Justice League film, making use of Gal Gadot, Amy Adams, Diane Lane and Holly Hunter. The film was widely reviled on content and cinematography, but also took in over $873 in world box office. The vaunted Wonder Woman intro of Gadot turned out to be a smaller if critical cameo than expected, but in general folks were pleased with her performance and the buzz for the up-coming Wonder Woman movie has been climbing. DC’s second film, Suicide Squad, was a chaotic hot mess that didn’t make a lot of sense, but sizzling actress of the moment Margot Robbie was given a splendid showcase in it as Harley Quinn, and Viola Davis chewed scenery with aplomb. The movie managed to gather an over $745 million in box office on looney spectacle alone.
Beyond that, women played key roles in top movies for the year, such as The Jungle Book (Johansson again!,) The Secret Life of Pets, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Sing, foreign mega-hit The Mermaid, Kung Fu Panda 3, Warcraft, Jason Bourne, La La Land, Ice Age: Collision Course, Independence Day: Resurgence, the foreign film Monster Hunt, The Legend of Tarzan (Robbie again!,) Angry Birds, Star Trek Beyond, Trolls, Now You See Me 2, The Conjuring 2, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, controversial Passengers (Lawrence again!,) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, Assassin’s Creed, Inferno, Central Intelligence, Me Before You, London Has Fallen, Storks, The Monkey King 2, The Huntsman: Winter’s War, The Magnificent Seven, Jack Reacher 2: Never Go Back, Don’t Breathe, foreign martial arts film Ip Man 3, The Accountant, Sausage Party, Mechanic: Resurrection, Ride Along 2, Allied and The Purge: Election Year, as well as assorted comedies and dramas.
This cluster of sequels, remakes, animation and horror thrillers still doesn’t prioritize parity of women’s roles with male ones. But it has become more established and automatic to have women in critical main roles and at a minimum, ones that kick ass. An action film now seems kind of odd if it doesn’t have at least two women in main roles, rather than as hangers on. And while this progress steering the iceberg is still maddeningly slow, the images are having a cultural impact. Young girls are growing up with a whole spectrum of actresses at different career stages who are jumping, punching and getting the job done in the biggest films – Jennifer Lawrence, Scarlett Johansson, Margot Robbie, Charlize Theron, Melissa McCarthy, Halle Berry, Anna Kendrick, Emma Stone, Mila Kunis, Viola Davis, Jessica Chastain, Emily Blunt, Blake Lively, and newer faces like Daisy Ridley, Sophie Turner and Felicity Jones. That holds possibilities for young women both as careers and as character icons. These women are changing the toy industry’s gendered marketing beliefs, altering the global market for film and t.v., making in-roads as producers and collaborators, and increasingly bringing in profits that Hollywood can’t ignore as bankable.
So the female movie star has once again not gone into reversal in 2016 and, in fact, has gained more confident ground. The actresses are poised for a very interesting year in 2017 and beyond, which we’ll start taking a look at in Part 2.