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Women in Action 2018/2019 – Part 1: 2018 in Review

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 Hits:

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.

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Women in Action 2017-2018: Part 2 – 2018 Analysis

Like 2017, 2018 is a year with a lot of movies coming out. I’m liable to miss some and others may get moved around to next year or unexpectedly into this one, but let’s take a look at the up-coming season that we know so far. Women are not starring in a ton of the big action franchises, reboots and adaptation films this year, but they are playing substantial roles in those movies as co-leads and major character in ensembles. And there are a number of big films in which they are the lead, some of them looking to be potentially important for women’s gains in action and big budget.

Early Movies:

Some movies have already been released or more widely released in the first six weeks of 2018, mostly films that were low-budget and problem children for distribution or are competing in the 2017 awards season. Proud Mary, a Blaxploitation homage starring Taraji P. Henson as an assassin, came out on a small budget but has sadly not hit it out of the park with just over $21 million in domestic box office and a lack of marketing support from its studio. Hopefully foreign box office will let it eventually come out ahead. Horror thriller Insidious Three: The Last Key, starring Lin Shaye as a psychic, has continued to perform in that franchise with a tiny budget and bringing in over $164 million in world box office. Also brought out early is the medium-budgeted romantic thriller Fifty Shades Freed, which ends the book adapted trilogy, starring Dakota Johnson and earning over $274 million in world box office so far. (This hit franchise does help “women” pictures get made as having box office potential, but otherwise has probably not done a great deal for women advancing in big films.) Smaller, notable Oscar-leaning movies that had December debuts but opened wider in 2018 are the gothic film Winchester, starring Helen Mirren, and the bio pic I, Tonya, starring Margot Robbie. Both have earned small but respectable amounts and good buzz and are likely to increase their take after the awards season.

In non-woman led action films so far this year, we’ve had the final YA adapted Maze Runner: The Death Cure, starring Kaya Scodelario, Rosa Salazar and Patricia Clarkson in key roles, for an over $259 million box office to close out that previously delayed franchise; the low budget thriller Den of Thieves, featuring Meadow Williams, for a medium take so far; the war and terrorism bio pictures 12 Strong and The 15:17 to Paris, neither of which had much female participation and have done middling box office; and Liam Neeson’s thriller The Commuter, starring Vera Farmiga in the chief villain role and which is closing in on $100 million box office. There were also two live action-animated mix movies Paddington 2 and Peter Rabbit, featuring Sally Hawkins and Rose Byrne respectively. Paddington 2 has done well for that franchise with over $213 million world box office, while Peter Rabbit, despite the efforts of many, many British actors doing voices, has underwhelmed with only $56 million so far on a mid-sized budget and probably won’t be establishing the Beatrix Potter books as a franchise this go round.

Superhero Movies:

The summer blockbuster season now starts in mid-February, with this year’s launch being given to the Marvel-verse’s much anticipated Black Panther, which has already pulled in over $462 million in world box office and smashed all sorts of records. Black Panther has a fundamentally important group of kick ass women as main characters, played by Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Angela Bassett and Florence Kasumba, as well as a lot of women in supporting minor roles, a win not just for women in action, but actresses of color in big movies.

The superheroes will, as they have been doing the last several years, dominate the big scene in movies this year. DC/Warner has got its machine finally up and running, but it is rather overwhelmed by Marvel, which in addition to its giant, incredibly successful Disney Avengers Marvel-verse that includes Black Panther, has the entire Fox/Marvel X-Men-verse, Fox’s related but meta-style Deadpool franchise, and then Sony/Marvel’s Spider-verse without Spider-Man directly (because they lent Spider-Man to the Avengers universe.)

While there’s only one big superhero movie this year in the franchises that is woman-led, all the movies are going to feature women characters in major ways. In the Marvel-verse, in addition to Black Panther, they are putting out sequel Ant-Man and the Wasp, which promotes Evangeline Lily’s Wasp character to equal billing with Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man this time and will feature Michelle Pfeiffer as the chief villain. And in the summer, we have the next, enormous Avengers movie, Avengers: Infinity War, Part 1, in which pretty much every character in the Marvel-verse franchise ever is going to show up as the currently divided Avengers join back together to go to war over the Infinity Stones and the fate of the Earth.

In the complicated land of the X-Men, we get another prequel film, X-Men: Dark Phoenix, in which the X-Men in the alternate new timeline have to deal with a storyline concerning Sophie Turner’s young Jean Grey, in the wake of the events of the previous movie, X-Men: Apocalypse. This is the nominal woman-starring superhero flick and Turner is backed up in it by Jennifer Lawrence, Jessica Chastain, Alexandra Shipp and others. Fox/Marvel will also be releasing Deadpool 2, which takes place in a surreal world adjacent to the X-Men and involving a few versions of their characters. Morena Baccarin, Brianna Hildebrand and Leslie Uggams will be reprising their roles in the sequel and be joined by Zazie Beetz as mercenary Domino.

Sony is coming out with Venom this year, and the thriller will feature Michelle Williams, Jenny Slate and Michelle Lee. They are also putting out a big animated feature: Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, which may feature some female voice actors as versions of Spider-Man in a multiverse take on the web-slinger. And DC/Warner will follow up on Justice League with Aquaman, the solo outing for Jason Momoa, which will also star Amber Heard and Nicole Kidman.

The Women in Action:

Outside of the spectacle superhero movies, a number of much anticipated woman-starring big pictures will be sprinkled throughout the year. The biggest buzz has been for Ocean’s 8, a spin-off of the successful Ocean’s Eleven heist films, starring Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett leading a team of eight women thieves and trying to pull off a complicated heist on Anne Hathaway. Also on deck is a prequel reboot of Tomb Raider, this time starring Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft with support from Hannah John-Kamen and Kristin Scott Thomas. The original Tomb Raider years back not only made Angelina Jolie a star but gave a big boost for a bit to women in big action roles. While the reboot may not have as much impact, it’s got the entire game franchise backing it up.

We have a number of science fiction films starring women this year. The biggest is the adaptation of the iconic YA novel A Wrinkle in Time. The story will star Storm Reid as the main character, searching for her father, and she’ll be supported by Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Rowan Blancherd. The film is directed by Ava Duvernay with a screen adaptation by Jennifer Lee, with the big name actresses helping to produce as well. You don’t get more women-power stuffed than this and the film looks like it’s going to be visually stunning.

 

Also women-packed is the film Annihilation, adapted from the bestselling novel, which stars Natalie Portman in a woman-only science team investigating a mysterious transformed land zone where expeditions keep disappearing. She’ll be backed up by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny and Tessa Thompson. We’re also getting the big budget live action adaptation of the cyberpunk manga Alita: Battle Angel from James Cameron, starring rising star Rosa Salazar as the title character in motion capture, and supported by Jennifer Connelly, Michelle Rodriguez, Lana Condor and Eiza Gonzalez.

Amandla Stenberg will star in The Darkest Minds, adapted from the YA book trilogy, and backed by Mandy Moore, Gwendoline Christie and Golden Brooks. The film posits a post-apocalypse in which most children died of a disease that leaves the remaining ones with superpowers and imprisoned. We’ll have to see if it can launch another successful YA dystopia franchise and keep that avenue going. Action star Gina Carano also takes the post-apocalyptic route as a bounty hunter looking for criminals in the ruins of civilization in the film Scorched Earth. The Transformers franchise will give us Bumblebee, starring everyone’s favorite yellow car-robot-alien, teamed up with Hailee Steinfeld as the human lead this time. The sequel Deep Blue Sea 2 will have Danielle Savre facing off against engineered super sharks.

In the suspense thriller area where women often manage starring roles, Jennifer Lawrence tackles the adaptation of the novel Red Sparrow, about a Russian spy/assassin who looks to defect. Claire Foy will be yet again another actress taking on the role of hacker Lisbeth Salander in the sequel The Girl in the Spider Web, based on the best-selling book series. And Gabrielle Union will fight off a home invasion to protect her family in the film Breaking In.

Revenge and crime will also figure big in films like Widows, in which the widows of a group of crooks start their own operation, starring the very busy Michelle Rodriguez, Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki and Carrie Coon. Taraji P. Henson has a second movie out for the year in Acrimony, where she plays a wronged wife out for payback. Michelle Pfieffer stars in Where is Kyra? in which a woman whose life has collapsed goes on a dangerous and mysterious path. Making its way into wider distribution, the film Assassination Nation stars Odessa Young as a high school senior in Salem, Massachusetts when the town turns into chaos. Australian thriller The Nightingale, starring Aisling Franciosi, has a woman going into the Outback to avenge her family.

Horror films for the year with women leads include remake Suspiria, pushed back from last year, about a mysterious ballet academy and stars Dakota Johnson, Chloe Grace Moretz and Tilda Swinton. Toni Collette apparently is freaking people out starring in psychological horror film Hereditary. Unsane takes place in a mental hospital and stars the also busy Claire Foy. Truth or Dare forces star Lucy Hale and friends to play a deadly game. And the new Halloween is not a reboot but instead a sequel of the same name in which Jaime Lee Curtis will again reprise her famous character in the franchise for a final confrontation with the resilient, magically powered killer Michael Myers, with Judy Greer playing her daughter.

On the big bio front, we have Mary, Queen of Scots, with Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie playing the opposing queens. And Melissa McCarthy will tell the story of fallen celebrity biographer Lee Israel in the bio film Can You Ever Forgive Me? The Miracle Season, starring Helen Hunt and based on a true story, is about a girls basketball team that must struggle on after the unexpected death of their star player.

In the more YA end of the pool, we have the adaptation of fantasy novel Every Day, in which Angourie Rice plays a teenager who falls for a spirit who inhabits a different person each day. I Kill Giants is an adaptation of the graphic novel in which a troubled girl played by Madison Wolf believes she has to defend her town from giants, and she may or may not actually be right. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms turns the famous ballet into an adventure fantasy starring Mackenzie Foy, backed by Keira Knightly, Helen Mirren and Miranda Hart. And famous YA novel Where’d You Go Bernadette? has been adapted into a film in which Emma Nelson plays a teen who has to find her missing, troubled mother, played by Cate Blanchett.

There are also going to be plenty of action comedies and some high profile dramas starring women. Chief among them is Disney’s huge sequel attempt, Mary Poppins Returns, starring Emily Blunt in the role made famous by Julie Andrews. Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again is an ambitious sequel for the hit Abba musical, with extensive flashbacks, Amanda Seyfried taking the lead role, and legendary Cher joining the extensive cast. The Spy Who Dumped Me stars Mila Kunis with Gillian Anderson and Kate McKinnon, a comedy thriller about a woman who discovers her ex-boyfriend is a spy.

Update: Looks like we may also be getting the sequel to Enchanted this year, entitled Disenchanted, with Amy Adams returning to the role that made her a star in Disney’s romantic spoof of its own princess movies that mixes live action and animation.

 

Overboard is getting remade, with the story about a rich person with amnesia tricked into being part of a working class family having an up-dated gender switch, with Anna Faris playing a working mom who desperately dupes her obnoxious former employer, played by Eugenio Derbez, into believing he’s her husband. The best-selling novel Crazy Rich Asians is having an adaptation starring Constance Wu, as an Asian-American woman who has to deal with her fiance’s wealthy Chinese family. Melissa McCarthy’s comedy entry this year, Life of the Party, focuses on a mother who goes back to college at the same university as her daughter. Amy Schumer’s newly produced comedy is a gamble called I Feel Pretty, about a woman whose head injury makes her think she now looks like a fashion model. Half Magic from Heather Graham’s production company stars Graham, Stephanie Beatriz and Angela Kinsey as women who befriend each other and help change their lives with more adventure. Rom-com The Competition sees Thora Birch avoiding long term relationships until a man challenges her to test her theories about love. And black comedy Dear Dictator has rebellious teen Odeya Rush taking in her pen pal — an exiled Castro-like dictator from a small island nation, played by Michael Caine, who teaches her how to cause revolt in her high school.

High profile dramas starring women bring us a British adaptation of the historical novel The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society, renamed just Guernsey, in which stalled novelist Lily James discovers she has a fan club on Guernsey Island and sets out to tell their story of surviving World War II. Kings stars Halle Berry as a mother of five trying to keep her family together and safe during the L.A. Rodney King riots. Please Stand By, starring Dakota Fanning, tells the story of an autistic woman who travels to enter a Star Trek writing competition. Midnight Sun stars Bella Thorne as a young woman who can be killed by sunlight due to an illness. Mary Magdalene stars Rooney Mara in the title role of the Biblical epic. And Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz star in Disobedience, adapted from the novel and produced by Weisz, about two women whose love is forbidden by the Orthodox Jewish community one of them left and the other remains in. Continue reading

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