It’s time (very late-ishly) for Women In Action, when I take a look at how actresses are faring in big budget action, horror, suspense, action comedy and other major films, which can convey “A” list status and big salaries, and how they might do in the following year. I’ve been doing this analysis since 2012, a year that ended up being considered the “year of the woman” in film because several women-led films did very well then. Since that time, seven years ago, there has been substantial momentum for women in movie star roles in big budget and action movies, including being the lead of some of those movies and having that be more common.
But. That progress remains of the trickle, trickle, melt the iceberg slowly variety, despite the economics showing that increasing women leads and in major roles pays off handsomely for movie studios. Discrimination against women, particularly women of color, is deeply embedded in Hollywood’s view of itself, in men feeling that cutting off women to some extent helps keep down the job and status competition and the costs. The idea that (American, white, straight) men are the important audience, when women have actually been the critical viewers, continues to be the rock to which executives cling for action pictures. Women actresses going from the status of sex objects who should be happy to have jobs and put up with systemic sexual harassment to more regularly power players in the field is definitely creating some seismic waves, especially after the recent MeToo and NeverAgain campaigns of 2017 led to some policy changes. But the resistance in the industry remains strong as the image of the cigar chomping white man movie producer with the gorgeous young actress on his arm still holds dominion. The increase in money from making women more involved and more prominent (both in front and behind the camera,) is swaying many but the statistics are as frustrating in the millimeter size of the increases as they are encouraging.
While statistically studies show that 2018 had improvements for women in roles over 2017, in general I find that 2018 didn’t have quite as much momentum and impact as 2016 and 2017 for positioning actresses as powerhouse stars. This was due to several factors. First off was the usual one – man-heavy and man-led long time franchises dominated the year. These films allowed women major roles in them, but still not as many leading opportunities. Second, some promising woman-led films got pushed back, such as X-Men: Dark Phoenix and Alita: Battle Angel, which were bumped into this year, 2019, while a number of the women-led major films didn’t perform as well as hoped (mostly due to foreign box office problems.) In particular, the low to mid budget suspense films that are often women-led and can make substantial profits, building up the women as reliable action heroes, didn’t do quite as well in 2018. This last was due partly to problems getting those movies into crowded theaters domestically in the U.S., as well as the wide-spread issue of getting them enough distribution for the critical foreign box office returns.
Even so, women did cement gains they’ve been making in recent years in 2018. Women have increased their prominence in action comedies. They are established as favorite critical players in the superhero franchises, maintained a solid presence in horror, and had some well-respected women-led hits. The year certainly showed no signs of backtracking and offered a decent boost to the in-coming films of 2019. So let’s take a look at what happened in 2018:
The number one woman-led action film for the year was, surprisingly, from the Transformers franchise — the prequel film Bumblebee, with young star Hailee Steinfeld playing the human who helps everybody’s favorite yellow alien robot car. The film took in over $459 million during the holiday season, most of it in the key foreign box office, and is now at $468 million. The romantic thriller Fifty Shades Freed, starring Dakota Johnson, completed that franchise series and once again earned large early in the year, with nearly $372 million on a modest budget.
Rebooting a very old franchise, Disney launched the big sequel Mary Poppins Returns, starring the top of the heap star Emily Blunt (now the highest paid actress in film.) While the musical score of the film came nowhere near the original, the fun family movie released for the holidays earned over $349 million and is still earning globally. That’s a good bit less than Disney was probably hoping for but solidly in the black related to its budget, and Disney will milk the merchandising, theme parks and reshowings/DVD sales of the film for decades.
Also a hit with high impact was Ocean’s 8, a spin-off of the Ocean’s movie franchise and starring big names Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, and five other extraordinary and noted or rising actresses. The heist caper kept to a mid-sized budget at $70 million and earned over $297 million during the busy summer. That might mean a sequel, but in any case, it showed that an action suspense movie chock full of women was highly effective and that Sandra Bullock remains a powerhouse star.
The other big woman-led action thriller for 2018 was another reboot prequel movie —Tomb Raider, based on the popular game, and starring rising actress Alicia Vikander. The movie was brought out early in the season and claimed over $274 million at the box office, most of it abroad. A sequel is likely. Star Jennifer Lawrence took a big swing with a Russian spy thriller adaptation, Red Sparrow, to mixed critical reaction but the mid-budget movie did turn a decent profit of over $151 million, much of it again in foreign box office. (That women-led action films did well in foreign box office when they managed to get proper international distribution is one highly encouraging sign from 2018.)
A lower budget thriller that did well was A Simple Favor, starring major actresses Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively. The psychological suspense tale took in over $97 million on a small $20 million budget. Breaking In, a thriller starring and produced by actress Gabrielle Union, was also made on a limited budget and took in over $51 million for a very healthy return. Taraji P. Henson’s starring turn in suspense film Tyler Perry’s Acrimony earned over $46 million.
Horror continues to provide good opportunities for woman-led films, partly due to their use of smaller budgets. Halloween, a possibly final sequel for the long running hit franchise, saw Jaime Curtis return to the role that made her a star, along with Judy Greer as her daughter. The small budget film was rewarded with over $254 million in box office as the biggest horror hit. Also highly successful was the sequel Insidious: The Last Key, starring Lin Shaye, taking in nearly $168 million. Low budget Truth or Dare, starring Lucy Hale, was very profitable with a $95 million plus take. Hereditary, an Australian entry starring Toni Collette, took in over $79 million. Slender Man and The Possession of Hannah Grace earned $51 million plus and $43 million plus respectively on tiny budgets. Unfriended: Dark Web, made for only a million, took in over $15 million. However, Unsane, starring Claire Foy, and remake Suspiria, starring Dakota Johnson, underperformed. Girl power satiric horror film Assassination Nation made a big cultural cult impact in geek circles, but only earned a few million with limited distribution.
The “Woman” Films:
In the less suspenseful but high profile releases of woman-led films, musical sequel Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, headed by Amanda Seyfried and featuring the legendary Cher, was the big earner with over $394 million on a medium-sized budget. Another big impact, big earner in the comedy area was Crazy Rich Asians, starring Constance Wu and Michelle Yeoh with a full Asian cast. The movie took in over $238 million on a very modest budget. Other woman-led and often woman produced comedies and action comedies that did well included Amy Schumer’s I Feel Pretty at nearly $95 million, Overboard with Anna Faris at over $91 million, star Jennifer Lopez’s career comedy Second Act taking in over $72 million on a small budget, the star studded Book Club with legends Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen earning over $68 million and comic star and producer Melissa McCarthy’s entry for the year, the more low key Life of the Party, which earned a solid near $66 million. (McCarthy also did the biography movie Can You Ever Forgive Me? which earned very little in a limited release but did snag the actress an Oscar nomination.)
On the historical and drama side where women can sometimes score large, the big winner was the satirical The Favourite, starring Olivia Coleman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone. The movie about Britain’s Queen Anne earned quite a bunch of Oscar nominations and wins and also scored well at the box office with nearly $96 million and still earning, a lot of it global box office. The other woman-led historical was Mary, Queen of Scots, starring Saoirse Ronan as the doomed queen and Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth I. The film has taken in a respectable $45 million and still earning, much of it also from global box office. The Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic, On the Basis of Sex, starring Felicity Jones, has earned over $37 million and got a lot of attention. The films Winchester, Tully and Disobedience didn’t earn a lot in returns, but did get a lot of attention for the performances of their lead actress stars.
These films did show an increase for Hollywood on featuring women subjects in prestige bios and dramas and, while not the big budget films, do boost actresses’ star power in the industry. Felicity Jones helped solidify her rising star status by playing Ginsburg, which combines with her big action status from Star Wars: Rogue One. Long time player Olivia Coleman climbed several rungs higher thanks to The Favourite and won an Oscar for the role. Rachel Weisz not only got an Oscar nomination for her role in The Favourite but co-produced the drama Disobedience. Starring in such projects doesn’t always mean getting to transition into big budget action for such actresses, but now a lot of actresses are shifting back and forth between such categories, like the men actors tend to do, as well as getting more production opportunities.
Even so, 2018 also contained a fair number of big misses for woman-led movies. That there are many projects starring women being given a shot is a good sign for women in action in general. And the past tendency to use failing films starring women as justification of the myth that women can’t bring in big box office has a lot less legitimacy in the industry and with the public than it used to have, since the stats show that women actors are actually big and reliable earners and woman-led action movies are simply more common in the landscape.
But the not quite strong enough performance of a number of high profile woman-led films does make 2018 less of a shining year, and again highlights a problem throughout the industry and with women making more substantial gains – the difficulty for some films in getting global distribution and critical foreign box office. A number of the most successful women-led films got a lot of their take from non-U.S. distribution. As we saw with the woman-centered reboot of Ghostbusters, films not getting distribution in China and other critical foreign territories can keep a movie from profiting, especially if the production budget is high.
A Wrinkle in Time, the adaptation of the beloved children’s novel, had young actress Storm Reid and the star power of Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling and Reese Witherspoon for woman director Ava DuVernay and quite a lot of media attention in the U.S. The lavish sci-fi story also had a large budget, however, and its eventual near $133 million box office meant that it didn’t get into the black. The movie did not get the critical global distribution and its foreign take remained too low. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, starring Mackenzie Foy, Keira Knightly and Helen Mirren, did better with over $174 million and a good chunk of that foreign box office, but the CGI-heavy film’s large budget meant it failed to turn a profit. The Girl in the Spider’s Web, the next in the Dragon Tattoo adapted thrillers and starring Claire Foy, did not do so well for that franchise.
Lower budget thrillers with woman protagonists – much talked about Widows, The Spy Who Dumped Me, Proud Mary, Peppermint, Hotel Artemis, Scorched Earth and horror remake Suspiria – failed to perform and get enough foreign distribution. Deep Blue Sea 2 went straight to video instead of theaters, L.A. riot drama Kings, starring Halle Berry, was barely distributed. YA adaptation films didn’t do so well either this year, unlike in years past. Post-apocalyptic The Darkest Minds and the body-jumping romance Every Day both did not make much of a dent. Illness romance Midnight Sun only ran on the festival circuit. The Hate U Give, adapted from the big bestselling novel, with rising star Amandla Stenberg, got little in the way of foreign distribution and while it got award attention, did not earn out its modest budget.
The sci-fi thriller Annihilation, adapted from the novel by Jeff Vandermeer, showed that these calculations may get very tricky in the future to measure. With a main cast of women, led by Natalie Portman, the film was made for a modest budget for ailing studio Paramount. Paramount decided to sell the international rights to the film to streaming and production company Netflix. Paramount distributed the film on a limited theatrical run and only in the U.S., Canada and China. It was otherwise distributed on the planet digitally by Netflix for streaming. The movie earned over $43 million in cinema box office, which wasn’t enough to offset its budget. But through Netflix, the audience for the twisty horror film was way larger and successful than it might otherwise have been and recouped its costs.
The Supporting Players:
While woman-led films might have had a mixed record in 2018, actresses in action roles did get to shine as stars in major ensembles and as supporting roles in the big action franchises. Such roles can boost actresses onto the A list and lead to bigger paychecks and power positions in Hollywood. The size and importance of the women’s roles in these franchises have definitely increased in the last seven years that I’ve been reviewing the rosters, which is paving the way for more women-led films and steadily diminishing the idea that women aren’t real action players like the men.
First among the big franchises has been for the last several years the superhero movies, particularly Marvel’s inter-connected Avengers saga. And no movie had more of a dramatic impact in 2018 than Black Panther, which took the Marvelverse into Afro-futurism with gusto. The visually stunning film, featuring only a few non-black actors, took in a billion, three hundred, forty-seven million in global box office, making it the second biggest film of the year, and earned Oscar nominations, including for best film. The movie featured Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o, Letitia Wright and legend Angela Bassett in critical and powerful supporting roles. Gurira and Nyong’o, already well known stars, climbed significantly higher in star power, while Wright is now a rising young star who almost stole the movie as the Black Panther’s techno-whiz little sister Princess Shuri.
The actresses reprised their roles in the following film, Avengers: Infinity Wars, along with all the other woman actors in the Marvelverse, for the first part of the ultimate – and rather dire – showdown with comics villain Thanos. Infinity Wars topped the box office with over 2 billion. Though it was a deeply crowded and over-stuffed movie filled with dramatic moments, all the main women players got spots in which to shine and played important roles in the action. The third Marvel movie in 2018 was the sequel to Ant-Man, entitled Ant-Man and the Wasp, elevating the returning Evangeline Lily to equal partner in the film with Paul Rudd as well as featuring legend Michelle Pfeiffer, rising young star Hannah John-Kamen, and the uber-utility player Judy Greer. Ant-Man and the Wasp raked in over $622 million in mid-summer.
In the Marvel-adjacent area, despite the delay of X-Men: Dark Phoenix, we had the dark film Venom which featured Michelle Williams and Jenny Slate and took in over $855 million, most of it foreign box office. Sequel Deadpool 2 increased its women roles with Morena Baccarin, Brianna Hildebrand and legend Leslie Uggams returning and joined by Zazie Beetz and Shioli Kutsuna as superpowered heroines. The film actually satirized the common action dodge of “fridging” women characters. It took in over $778 million, increasing the franchise’s previous box office, and then added another over $50 million with Once Upon a Deadpool – an annotated PG-13 version of the film shown in theaters for charity. The animated, multiverse film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which won the Oscar for best animated feature, was one of the most talked about movies of the year and took in over $375 million in box office. It featured the voice talents in key roles of Hailee Steinfeld (who with Bumblebee as well had a very good year,) Kimiko Glenn, legend Lily Tomlin, the talented Kathryn Hahn and Luna Lauren Velez.
DC’s big entry for the year was Aquaman, starring Jason Momoa. It came out for the holidays and is still earning globally, but has taken in over a billion in box office. The movie starred Amber Heard as essentially Aquaman’s partner in the film, as well as the key performance by star Nicole Kidman as his mom. Other billion dollar plus box office players for the year were Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom with Bryce Dallas Howard in the lead role and nice supporting performances from Daniella Pineda and Isabella Sermon, as well as the velociraptor, Blue; and Incredibles 2, which featured Holly Hunter’s Elasti-girl meeting new career challenges, backed up by the voices of Sarah Vowell and Catherine Keener.
Outside the superhero realms, Mission: Impossible – Fallout did a shout-out to the whole franchise by bringing back woman stars of its past films, Rebecca Ferguson and Michelle Monaghan, for key roles and adding legend Angela Bassett again and Vanessa Kirby, for over $791 million in box office – most of it again the critical foreign box office. The Fantastic Beasts part of the Harry Potter franchise returned with The Crimes of Grindelwald, for over $653 million, with returning stars Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol and Carmen Ejogo and adding Zoe Kravitz and Claudia Kim in key roles.
Star Wars/Disney gave up its profitable December holiday slot to Mary Poppins Returns and put its Solo: A Star Wars Story, a prequel about young Han Solo, in the middle of summer instead. The troubled production did not fare well in a crowded field, despite its nearly $400 million take, due to its big budget. It also wasn’t given as much foreign distribution, which hurt critical box office. Even so, the ancillary SW film provides long-term merchandising and product usefulness for Disney and earned praise for the performances of its actresses – Emilia Clarke, Thandie Newton, Erin Kellyman and Phoebe Waller-Bridge as Lando’s partner robot L3-37.
New launch Ready Player One, the Spielberg-shepherded adaptation of the bestselling novel, struck gold, taking in over $582 million, most of it foreign box office again, and having major performances by Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe and Hannah John-Kamen again, who is earning a rep for playing woman bad-ass characters. A Quiet Place, an alien invasion horror movie, scored big with an over $340 million haul on a $17 million production budget. It also made 2018 the year of Emily Blunt, once again, between her praised performance in A Quiet Place and taking on the mantel of Mary Poppins. Young actress Millicent Simmonds also gave an excellent performance as her daughter in the movie.
Other big scorers in action/suspense/horror for the year included the mega-shark movie The Meg, starring Bingbing Li, Shuya Sophia Cai and Ruby Rose. The incredibly busy Dwayne Johnson put out two profitable action thrillers — Rampage, based on the video game and featuring Naomie Harris and Malin Ackerman as the chief baddie, and Skyscraper, which co-starred Neve Campbell and McKenna Roberts as his wife and child. Horror movie The Nun was the newest entry of the franchise featuring paranormal investigators the Warrens, played by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, helping Lili Taylor’s single mom with a dangerous spirit and having a bunch of actresses playing nuns. The film made over $365 million on a modest budget.
Operation Red Sea and sequel Monster Hunt 2 were the big box office winners from the Asian, non-English sector and featured women in supporting roles, including actress Baihe Bai. Other sequels included the last installment of the YA adaptation Maze Runner: The Death Cure, which took in nearly $300 million on a modest budget and featured legend Patricia Clarkson and rising stars Kaya Scodelario and Rosa Salazar. Like Solo: A Star Wars Story, the sequel Pacific Rim: Uprising made decent money at nearly $300 million to be in the top earners, but that was essentially breaking even given its large budget because it did not secure enough domestically or in foreign box office. The film had Rinko Kikuchi returning to her role as Mako Mori and had a major performance from young star Cailee Spaeny, as well as critical supporting roles for Adria Arjona, Tian Jing and more minor ones for several actresses. While the movie’s performance may have busted the franchise, it was popular enough to help cement the view of women as key players in action.
Children’s animation was considerably lacking in any big girl-led films, but did feature women in ne w and old franchises. Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation had Selena Gomez, Molly Shannon, Fran Drescher and Chrissy Tiegan reprise their roles and added the indispensable Kathryn Hahn as a lead character for an over $500 million global take. Sequel film Ralph Breaks the Internet had Sarah Silverman and Jane Lynch re-voicing their major roles and added the busy Taraji P. Henson, Gal Gadot and a host of other women for also over $500 million box office. The reboot Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch featured the voices of Cameron Seeley, Rashida Jones and the venerable Angela Lansbury (who also did a cameo in Mary Poppins Returns as did Meryl Streep,) and crossed the over $500 million point as well. New entry Smallfoot made use of Zendaya and Gina Rodriguez to take in over $200 million. Paddington 2, a mix of live action and animation, featured Sally Hawkins and Julie Walters reprising their roles and the sequel earned over $220 million. And curiously enough, live action/animation mix Peter Rabbit, based on the Beatrix Potter books, had looked when it debuted like a flop, not getting enough box office to deal with its mid-sized budget. But over time, it apparently rallied and earned a hefty $351 million plus global haul. The film featured Rose Byrne in the key live action role and the voices of Daisy Ridley, Margot Robbie and Elizabeth Debicki among others.
Other hits that prominently featured women in major roles included the action comedy Game Night, with Rachel McAdams and Jason Bateman starring as a couple who find themselves playing a real live suspense game, with the support of Sharon Horgan and Kylie Bunbury. The film took in a healthy $117 million plus on a low budget. Creed II, which extends the Rocky franchise, focused on its boxing fighter and mentor relationships but also featured Tessa Thompson, reprising her major role as Creed’s wife, and veteran Phylicia Rashad, for over $200 million in box office. Music drama remake A Star is Born launched international singer Lady Gaga into acting stardom as well, earning numerous award nominations and over $434 million globally on a small budget. Musical bio Bohemian Rhapsody earned even bigger with over $900 million in global box office and a lot of awards, and featured Lucy Boynton in the key role of Mary Austin.
So while 2018 didn’t have quite the sizzle for women actresses as we’ve seen in other years, it did offer a wide range of star opportunities for women in big pictures, produced a solid group of women-led action and big buzz hits and probably put a cap on the idea that women doing well in major action pictures is a fluke that should happen infrequently. Which has been a nice ramp up towards the remarkable things happening and planned for women in action this year. I’ll take a look at that in Part 2.
Women in Action Archives: