Tag Archives: action films

Women in Film – Part 1: 2016 Review

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.

“I rebel.”

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Women in Film, Part 1 — 2014 Review

It’s time again for Women In Film, where we look at blockbusters, action films of all types and big buzz films to see how actresses are doing in terms of prominence, box office moolah, and improving the state of female movie stars in the business. In this part, Part 1, we’ll be looking back at the films in 2014 to see what happened, and in Part 2, we’ll look ahead at what’s playing and up-coming in 2015 that we know about so far.

This analysis of mine has been going on since 2012, which media up-played as the year of the woman in film, because there were quite a few movies that year headed by women, including big action ones. As we know, part of that media coverage was simply hype – studies show that women are still hugely behind in grabbing major roles, and behind the camera it’s even worse, except for maybe producers. But it was also a valid reflection of shifts due to the trickle, trickle progress of getting Hollywood to accept and happily exploit the box office power of women, to an audience that largely doesn’t really care if it’s a man or a woman, (or even another gender,) helming a film. The year 2014 was, like 2013, a year mainly of sequels, old action franchises and superhero films, with Marvel dominating again (more on that later,) none of which tend to favor women as leads. So it wasn’t a ground-breaking year for actresses, like 2012, but it was a consolidating year, which did confirm that women can bring the box office themselves and are increasingly useful in ensemble action films. The bulkhead that was established still remains, with some interesting trends shaping for up-coming years.

Women had high impact roles in many successful action films this last year in which they weren’t the leads. In the superhero arena, Marvel again made good use of Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in the hit Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier, and employed go-to geek movie star Zoe Saldana and Doctor Who favorite Karen Gillan, plus a cameo from Glen Close, in the big summer domestic winner, Guardians of the Galaxy. In their ancillary franchises, we had Emma Stone in Amazing Spiderman 2, and X-Men: Days of Future Past making key use of Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, and Ellen Page. Women were front and center in most of the big sequels: 300: Rise of an Empire, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Fast and Furious 6, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Rio 2, The Purge 2: Anarchy, Horrible Bosses 2, Muppets Most Wanted, Night at the Museum 3: Secret of the Tomb, and the biggest movies globally: Transformers 4: Age of Extinction, and The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies. They also had critical leading roles in hits Gone Girl, Interstellar, Hercules, Monuments Men, Non-Stop, The Equalizer, The Maze Runner, the rebooted Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Lego Movie, Big Hero 6, Noah, The Imitation Game, Selma, Neighbors, The Nut Job, Dracula Untold, Into the Storm, Blended, The Boxtrolls, and The Book of Life, and Emily Blunt bluntly stole hit sci-fi actioner Edge of Tomorrow from Tom Cruise.

But while women have become an ubiquitous if not always powerful component of the big action films, playing more than just “the Girl,” how about when they lead the movies? The proven player this year again was The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1, the next to last installment of the mega-franchise, starring red hot Jennifer Lawrence. Hunger Games 3 won the U.S. domestic box office for the year, and is still making the rounds of foreign box office for over $751 million worldwide so far. That didn’t make the billion club or yet beat installment #2 of the franchise, Catching Fire, but it definitely made its makers happy and sets the stage for the last film in the story to be quite huge.

Mockingjay

The other big female led movie of the year was Disney’s Malificent, a live action alternate version of their animated film Sleeping Beauty, showing the cursing fairy’s side of the story. Starring Angelina Jolie — because who else could have done it that perfectly — Malificent was a big budget film that has taken in nearly $760 million in world box office and will live on television forever probably. (Jolie also got her director on in 2014, with her third film Unbroken, the war bio of Olympian Louis Zamperini, a modestly budgeted action picture that has earned over $160 million and is still opening globally.)

Divergent, considered to be The Hunger Games’ little sister of sorts, was put out as a mid-budget film in the relatively quiet period of March, starring Shailene Woodley. Other recent YA series adaptations had done only middling, and the female led The Vampire Academy, out just before Divergent, had flopped, but Divergent’s high action dystopia brought in over $288 million. Another YA adaptation with a female lead, If I Stay, brought in over $78 million on a miniscule budget, and the buzzy YA romantic drama, The Fault in Our Stars, took in over $305 million on only a $12 million budget.

The surprise hit of the year, however, turned out to be a film called Lucy, starring Scarlett Johansson. The mid-budget, largely under the radar sci-fi martial arts thriller ended up with world box office of over $458 million, cementing Johansson’s rep as a star in action films and praised indies. It also meant more interest in inexpensive action flicks featuring a female protagonist, a house built by the Underworld and Resident Evil franchises and recent smaller budget successes like Colombiana and this year’s In the Blood. Continue reading

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Death of the Female Movie Star? We’re Just Getting Started, Part 2

So let’s look at the current landscape:

Women’s roles in action movies have been sporadic in their type and prominence over the decades, often depending on economic issues of the time. While big budget projects featuring women have been rare, on the small and mid-size budget front, women have made significant progress. Often these action films are in science fiction, fantasy and particularly horror, a direct result of a shift in the 1980’s – which includes Terminator and Alien – to bring the female slice and dice victims more regularly front and center and also able to strike back at the monsters instead of just being rescued or killed.

Resident Evil, the zombie franchise based on the popular game, has become the venerable reliable of this on the B-movie action front. Starring Milla Jovovich, the first film had a decent budget cost for 2002 of $33 million and earned $40 million in the U.S. and over $100 million worldwide. The sequel increased the budget and did even more in the U.S. and $129 million worldwide, the third movie upping that to $147 worldwide. The fourth movie, which also increased the role of female sidekick Ali Larter, got a budget increase to $60 million, and did that in domestic sales with a whopping $236 million in foreign box office for a total take of nearly $300 million. The fifth movie, Resident Evil: Retribution, is due out this year.

Joining RE was Underworld in 2003, starring Kate Beckinsale. The elaborate vampire-werewolf film cost $22 million to make and took in $52 million in the States and $95 million worldwide. The sequel built on that for a $111 million world take. The third movie in the franchise, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, was a prequel and did not star Beckinsale in the main role. That movie had a bigger budget of $35 million. It made a healthy profit, but the domestic take was only $45 million in the U.S. and $91 million worldwide. So they brought Beckinsale back this year to star in Underworld Awakening with a much bigger budget invested — $70 million. In the only two weeks it’s been out in theaters, the film has earned over $48 million in the U.S. and a world take of over $88 million.

It’s tempting for many people to ignore these numbers and to dismiss these franchises as unimportant and small impact in the sea of testosterone action films, their budgets not large enough to value and their appeal credited to the hormones of young men for sex and violence and the special effects. But this is exactly how the war of attrition is waged – films that get made on easier, less risky terms, create profit and establish having a female action lead as perfectly normal, even desirable. The numbers aren’t unimportant to Hollywood, especially when merchandising is factored in. Replication occurs and so in the strange but successful low budget mash-up Alien Vs. Predator, for instance, the lead character is a non-white actress named Sanaa Lathan, something that is not seen as remarkable at all. Even when women aren’t the leads, they have become a requirement for team characters in bigger budget films.

And Hollywood is then willing to increase the risk somewhat by trying female leads on martial arts thrillers, with less of a safeguard of merchandising, the cult followings of SFF and game adaptation profits than something like Underworld. We saw that when in the dog days of last summer when they drop the small fry action films, we got Colombiana, starring Zoe Saldana, a non-white actress again, cashing in on her Star Trek capital, a revenge thriller that cost $40 million to make. It grossed $10 million in its opening weekend, almost made its budget in domestic take and made a respectable if not exciting profit of nearly $61 million worldwide. Also in 2011, the film Hanna, starring Saoirse Ronan, made a splash. It cost $30 million, took in $43 million in the U.S. and nearly $64 million worldwide. Recently, we then had Haywire, starring Gina Carano in the quiet release zone of January-February. The spy film, coming from venerated auteur Steven Soderbergh, had a $23 million budget and in its first two weeks has made over $16 million in the U.S. and over $19 million worldwide with a long lead time to earn more. And then there is One For the Money, a throwaway film adapted from the bestselling mystery series and starring Catherine Hegel. While not likely to be a real success, given its poor marketing support, that the film managed to get made at all after over a decade in development hell shows an interest, and the film did take in a solid $11 million its opening weekend. Individually, you might not notice these films much. Collectively, they mark a sea change.

The real fun, however, is set to come over the course of 2012. In the up-coming months, including in the blockbuster summer, we’ll be getting films like Gone, a low budget kidnapping thriller starring Amanda Seyfried as a kickass former victim saving her sister; Brave, Pixar’s first animated feature with a female lead (by which they will make up for the disastrous male-centered ad campaign for Disney’s Tangled; ) and Gemma Arterton sharing the spotlight with Jeremy Renner for Hansel and Gretal: Witch Hunters. We’re getting two highly talked about views of Snow White – the comic Mirror, Mirror with Julia Roberts and Lily Collins, and the dark war epic Snow White and the Huntsman starring Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron.

Chris Hemsworth, bringing his appeal as the star of Thor, plays the Huntsman in that film, but he doesn’t even rate an appearance on the main poster, which features the dwarves behind an armored and besworded Stewart, whose Twilight following is expected to be the bigger draw, and media publicity has concentrated on playing up Theron as the evil queen. While Stewart shared the spotlight in Twilight with boy candy Robert Paterson and Tyler Lautner, her Bella was still the woman in the center of the action and the financial success of those films has led to a keen interest in Hollywood on making YA adaptations and teen friendly films with female leads.

snow-white-huntsman-movie-poster-kristen-stewart-01

 

The big movie, however, is The Hunger Games, adapted from Suzanne Collins’ bestselling YA series. The film, starring Jennifer Lawrence (already a big contributor to women’s action through the acclaimed Winter’s Bone thriller and a key role in X-Men: First Class,) is probably going to be seen by many – and sometimes marketed as such – as another Twilight romance, and thus, as the property of teenage girls, dismissed as important. In reality, The Hunger Games is a post-apocalyptic SF war epic with a substantial following of young male readers. With a more substantial budget of $75 million and already a fairly extensive marketing campaign, it’s a bigger gamble, but early response to the trailer by largely happy fans suggests the film is going to do well, generate a ton of media over its Mad Max: Thunderdome set-up and vault Lawrence up the casting lists into at least Stewart territory.

With women also having sizable, if not lead, kickass roles in action movies like This Means War, Battleship, The Avengers, Prometheus, Batman 3 and World War Z, the up-tick has been enough to get media attention pondering a “new” trend of women in action, rather than just expressing the routine astonishment that an individual woman-led picture makes any money. And the process is set to continue with future movies like John Carpenter’s Darkchylde, based on the comic series, Dorothy of Oz, J.J. Abrams’ The Invisible Woman, Sandra Bullock in the SF film Gravity, and James Cameron – who arguably has contributed substantially to increasing the power of female actresses in action and female filmmakers – will do so again in the SF Battle Angel, based on the graphic novel about a female cyborg – a project that may have put more of the kabash on Shepherd’s film option chances. And outside of action, women will be prominent in films as diverse as What to Expect When You’re Expecting, Anna Karenina and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, hitting more markets than just male driven films and following in the wake of The Help’s so far $200 million plus grosses and likely Oscar boost, plus the usual slate of horror films which are still gaining business.

When Tomb Raider came out and made Angelina Jolie a star in 2001, the common belief was that the film had not done spectacularly enough for the hype, because, after all, she was a girl and video game movies don’t do well. But Tomb Raider made nearly $275 million worldwide, quite good for the time, and its weaker, less supported sequel made over $156 million. And nine years later, Salt starring Jolie raked in nearly $300 million. Even Sucker Punch, which drew Shepherd’s ire — a complicated, surreal, Inception-like movie criticized for over-sexualizing its largely female cast in ways that were little different from your average Bond film — managed to break even worldwide. Women led films are bringing in regular revenue and have absolutely no societal problems attracting diverse audiences.

And in television, watched by millions more regularly than films, women have become a staple of action and suspense, helming more and more shows as more cable channels develop original programming, as well as taking prominent roles in ensemble casts and finding more opportunities for female directors and producer/screenwriters. Some shows tank, some soar, just like all shows, but the slow attrition that began way back with shows like The Mod Squad, Police Woman and Charlie’s Angels – happy female form exploiters all – has developed into too many shows to comfortably list. Such gains are sometimes dismissed as making women the second class citizens given t.v. but denied movies, but that’s the sneaky envelope pushing once again. T.V. is becoming an effective launch pad and career enhancer. Just ask the cast of the hit Bridesmaids.

It is a slow and patient slog – a gliding Titanic iceberg if you will – but women do slow and patient well. And the newest generation of young actresses aren’t interested in just doing romcoms and selling fashion and perfume. They are also making their mark in action, from Hermione Granger to a militant Snow White, they’re producing indies, and the holes in the glass ceiling they’re carving are getting substantially larger. Does Hollywood want this? Not particularly, as then they have to share in a wider pool. They certainly don’t trust it. But the money is there and the audiences will happily watch. In an uncertain yet growing world of entertainment, Hollywood will try anything a few times, even if it complains with old excuses. And once they do, women will jam open the doorway, wearing a catsuit, and there’s no going back.

https://katgoodwin.wordpress.com/2012/02/04/death-of-the-female-movie-star-were-just-getting-started-part-1/

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Death of the Female Movie Star? We’re Just Getting Started, Part 1

Joel Shepherd is a young, smart, male SF writer from Australia. His Cassandra Kresnov series features a female soldier android in a planetary future society and is worth checking out. Back in the summer, Shepherd did a guest post essay for SF Signal about how the over-sexualizing of actresses in badly wrought action pics he felt had created the myth that a female lead action film couldn’t sell. I’ll be honest, that essay made me chuckle. A producer optioned Shepherd’s series and has been trying to get a deal in Hollywood for a film adaptation. Shepherd recently announced that the producer had given up for now because studios and other producers weren’t interested in a female action lead unless there was an A-list actress attached and not only is it hard to get access to them, but A-list actresses hardly ever get to do action pictures themselves, which keeps them from climbing up the A-list further. He announced his film news in a blog essay: “Death of the Female Movie Star?,” wondering if the self-defeating ways of Hollywood refusing to make big budget action female star pictures meant less and less women featured and a cycling disaster for female movie stars.

http://joel-shepherd.blogspot.com/2012/01/death-of-female-movie-star.htm

While I’m sorry for Shepherd that he didn’t get a movie or t.v. deal and hope that a new one works out for him later on, I have to say that the answer to his question: Death of the Female Movie Star? is at this point: No, they’re just getting started. In fact, 2012 is shaping up to be the year of the female action star at this point. Certainly in the last two years, we’ve had a significant increase in females taking center stage in action films. So lets take a look at this in two parts:

Why did I find amusing parts of Shepherd’s first essay for SF Signal:

http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2011/06/guest_post_joel_shepherd_on_the_secret_to_successful_female_action_hero_films/

Well, while I didn’t entirely disagree with his reasoning, I laughed because of passages like these:

“But if Hollywood makes a movie about a ‘female hero’, they’ll focus upon the word ‘female’. They’ll lose emphasis upon the hero story, and focus on sex and gender instead. Our female hero will be dressed in ridiculous outfits, and will have action scenes dedicated less to showing how kick-ass she is, than to how many teenage boys she can give erections while kicking ass.”

This first paragraph made me chuckle first off because it shows how normal it is now for people like Shepherd to view women characters in action films kicking ass. So normal that he’s focused on the sometimes ridiculous outfits. Only twenty years ago, though, women characters kicking ass in action movies was a rarity. You could count the examples on two hands, and most of them were horror films. When Sharon Stone kicked Arnold Schwartzenegger’s ass in Total Recall, the visual so shocked audiences as novel that it kicked Stone up the casting list into stardom and then to the film Basic Instinct where Michael Douglas looked positively scared of her and her ice pick. Mostly in action pictures women were expected to be “the girl” – to wear skimpy clothes and get dragged to safety by the manly hero, screaming or gasping all the way. One of the advantages of SF films was that you could say that in the future, women kick butt, and have that in the picture, but it took a long while for there to be as many opportunities for actresses to shoot guns and jump kick, whether they were the lead or not, as we have today. Now, when a female character in an action film doesn’t kick ass, we find it kind of strange.

And then there was this one in the essay:

Action heroes don’t wear suspenders and high heels, male or female. Period. Remember Ripley in the first two Alien movies? (the only ones that count) Absolutely no overt focus on sex appeal. Ditto Sarah Connor (and ditto about only the first two counting). Those were heroes, who just happened to be female.”

The fact that Shepherd fondly remembers Alien and the Terminator movies as having no overt focus on their main females’ sexuality, (Hamilton was not actually the star in the Terminator movies, Schwarzenegger was,) is, well, kind of endearing. Sure, Sigourney Weaver wore non-clingy jumpsuits in Alien – and then climbed out of them in her underwear. The entire last scene of Alien has her doing a striptease:

alien

 

And yes, Hamilton didn’t have high heels on her combat boots in Terminator 2. She just wore tank tops with no bra and pj’s that revealed her navel while she did chin-ups:

lindahamilton2

 

 

And in the Lara Croft movies, the gold ring so far for female-helmed action pictures, they lovingly try to get Angelina Jolie as near to naked as they can for most of the time while she portrays a videogame character whose chief attribute is that she looks like Adventure Barbie:

It’s progress that guys like Shepherd can be so enamored of a movie and its female character that they may not consciously notice the over-sexualization and fetishing of the actresses if there isn’t an elaborate costume and if the movie’s a hit. Women, however, do notice, but we tend to look at it as still the cost of having the women in the picture. When Paula Patton strips out of her sexy evening gown to reveal sexy underwear so she can change into a sexy leather mission outfit in a moving sports convertible in the recent Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, with Tom Cruise grinning beside her, it just elicits a guffaw. The big change is that now her character Jane Carter is the second most valuable member of Ethan Hunt’s team, has her own major emotional story arc, and is played by a black actress. Only a short time ago, any of those things would have been remarkable.

So it isn’t, as Shepherd first hypothesized, the female focus that’s a big issue as there is never a time when that femaleness is not emphasized in action pictures – certainly not in the age of the Internet and its obsession with the female body. And it’s not a dislike of women kicking ass, which is now the standard. So why are Hollywood executives so convinced that audiences don’t want action pictures with female leads? The answer is, it has nothing to do with the audiences at all.

Here’s what happens: Hollywood occasionally, at the pushing of producers, directors and heavy hitting actors, makes a film with a female lead and also sometimes with what they term female subject matter. And they always express astonishment when these movies make them money. They’re astonished by Erin Brokovitch being a hit. La Femme Nikita, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, The Help. At a certain point from all this, as Entertainment Weekly columnist Mark Harris often points out, you have to accept that either the people who run Hollywood are suffering from short term memory brain damage and are the most incompetent folk ever or that there’s something else going on.

What that is, is an institutionalized, deeply suspicious, counter-factual prejudice from the people who control the purse strings. Hollywood executives don’t want to give women in the industry any more power than they have to. They don’t want to have to pay female movie stars as much as male ones and deal with their pet projects and demands for higher budgets. They don’t want to have to pay female screenwriters as much or give female directors the most lucrative or prestigious gigs or acknowledge them as such. (Witness Kathryn Bigelow being the first woman to win an Oscar for best director all the way in 2010.) They don’t want to have to broker with female producers or have female studio executives giving the green light. (And the same goes for non-whites.) This prejudice is not always personal. Including women (and non-whites) more fully means more competition and less resources and control for the already favored. It’s felt as an encroachment and it’s resisted, with the highly lame excuse that really, they aren’t bigoted; it’s the public’s fault.

Yet, there is money to be made off of women, their judgment and their talent, and the industry knows this. Audiences, despite the claims, are incredibly quick to adjust to females in major roles, and studios can no longer bank on the teenage boys and young men who’ve partially deserted them for videogames and the Internet (and who are perfectly comfortable with kick ass women warriors anyway.) So it’s been a war of slow attrition, waged over decades, with women and their male allies seizing what opportunities they can get, accepting limitations to get in the door and then trying to inch the goal posts forward to both success and failure. Shepherd is right that the big budget, big money making films are the most heavily guarded, but the reality is that female movie stars’ movies earn better in aggregate and more reliably than male ones, (for one thing, the women are cheaper, improving potential profit margins.) The war of attrition for action has been well under way and there are numerous signs that women may have already passed a tipping point.

https://katgoodwin.wordpress.com/2012/02/04/death-of-the-female-movie-star-were-just-getting-started-part-2/

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