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.
Women, women everywhere
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.