Tag Archives: “Death of the Female Movie Star?”

How Are You Ladies Doing?

So, way back in February, due to a blog post by Australian author  Joel Shepherd, I did a two part post on whether things were really looking dire for female movie stars or not (and had been in the past.) The second part of that post essay was about the up-coming movie landscape, specifically the blockbuster summer in which women stars are traditionally small potatoes. This summer, a number of moderate to large budgeted films with big buzz were going to be women led, a situation that got the media’s attention. The question was whether the films would do well, reinforcing the idea that women led hits were bankable, in addition to smaller films led by women performing decently and more frequently. So now that we’re headed into the last part of summer and several months down the road, how has it gone?

The answer is, pretty well. We started in the late winter with the Soderbergh spy thriller Haywire, starring Gina Carano. The budget was only $23 million and it made over $31 million. That’s nothing to write home about, but it’s not a flop either. The even smaller thriller production Gone, which had Amanda Seyfried paying her dues, managed to pull in a respectable over $16 million number, even though it was barely marketed. Comic mystery thriller adaptation One for the Money, starring Katherine Heigl, flopped as expected but at $37 million box office, most of it domestic, on a $40 million budget and not that much advertising for it, it wasn’t an utterly horrible flop and doesn’t skew the record that much. What to Expect When You’re Expecting, the woman-filled, non-action “women’s movie” of the season, did over $67 million on a $40 mil budget – okay, especially since it was a mostly domestic audience and an ensemble film, and it should do okay on DVD.

The latest Underworld installment, Underworld Awakening, which brought Kate Beckinsale back to the franchise in the lead, had a fairly big budget for the series at $70 million and did better than any other installment of the franchise so far with over $160 million worldwide. Mirror Mirror, the first, more comic Snow White movie starring Lily Collins and Julia Roberts, had a moderate budget of $85 million and took in nearly $163 million, nearly double its production cost.

Then came The Hunger Games, the adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ bestselling YA novel, starring Jennifer Lawrence. On a budget of $78 million, with a female lead and a SF post-apocalypse story about children killing each other as entertainment and social control, it was considered a huge gamble, even though the series has many male and female fans. If it had done even moderately well, it was going to be seen as a victory, a solid “replacement” in the market for the finishing Twilight series. It did better than well. It’s made over $680 million. Its foreign take started kind of slow – which wasn’t due to having a female lead as female led movies often do well overseas – but has since picked up as the film opens in more and more countries.

Could the run be sustained, though? The next big female “gamble” was the second Snow White movie, Snow White and the Huntsman, starring Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron. With a big budget of $170 million for the CGI, it was going to have to do extremely well to recoup and Mirror Mirror had already had the shot at the Snow White story only a few months before. It made over $354 million worldwide, not as much as cheaper The Hunger Games, but more than enough to probably get that sequel they’re angling for. And then came Brave, Pixar’s “first ever” female lead animated feature, starring a, well sort of Disney princess Pixar-style, red-haired and Scottish. Would it do well, especially with a big budget cost of $185 million? Brave had one of the best openings Pixar has had for a non-sequel feature with $68 million opening weekend. It’s taken in nearly $225 million in only three weeks of showing. Like The Hunger Games, its foreign box office is being broken out slowly and is liable to bring in much more of the total in the next few months.

And as it turns out, although I wasn’t aware of it till it was out in June and I was forced by my family to see it — there was another female-led giant film of the summer – Prometheus, possibly the most expensive nonsensical movie ever made. The Alien prequel stars Noomi Rapace, as an archeologist/biologist doctor who finds out God is nasty, and also had again Charlize Theron playing a major role as resident ice queen. Rapace’s character was no Ripley, but the highly anticipated film bet on a female protagonist again for the franchise and has pulled in over $295 worldwide so far. (The reported production cost was $130 million.)

That’s about it for the female led films for the summer season, though it’s worth noting that Scarlett Johansan, the only female on the team of superheroes in The Avengers (at the studio’s insistence, natch,) looks to be getting a deal that might net her $20 million for the sequel, plus a possible spin-off feature for her character Black Widow. The big boy superheroes take the fore with Amazing Spiderman out now and Batman: The Dark Knight Rises to come out soon. 2012, however, will see the last movie of the Twilight franchise – Breaking Dawn, Part 2, in November, which is notable because Kristen Stewart’s Bella will be going in the last film from prophesied human whom everyone has to protect to super-powered vampire mom protecting her prophesied daughter. And also the next installment of the Resident Evil franchise, Resident Evil: Retribution, comes out in September, starring Milla Jovovich (who also totally stole the picture The Three Musketeers last year.)

Next year, some of the female-led films we know so far are the next Hunger Games film, Catching Fire; the animated feature Epic, with Amanda Seyfried doing the voice of the protagonist; Sandra Bullock’s SF movie Gravity; another YA adaptation, The Mortal Instruments, starring Lily Collins; the adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s SF novel The Host, starring Saoirse Ronan; a remake of Carrie starring Chloe Grace Moretz; another Soderbergh thriller, The Bitter Pill, starring Rooney Mara; Reese Witherspoon’s legal thriller Devil’s Knot; Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring; the drama Very Good Girls; Lasse Hallstrom’s Safe Haven; the The Evil Dead remake that’s more of a re-boot and stars Jane Levy; and the animated Dorothy of Oz. Also, the not female-led but female friendly Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, starring Gemma Arterton and Jeremy Renner, and Scary Movie 5. 2013 looks to be fairly full of testosterone, with a number of big movies like The Hobbit and the re-boot again of Superman, but the females are not going away, and female directors are in the mix and have a better shot at action films than they did a few years ago. Females are now a staple as secondary main characters in nearly every action film, in slightly larger numbers than before.

So 2012 definitely marks a sea change and from here on, it’s drip, drip, drip for more potentially successful erosion. The future for female movie stars is looking better than it was and less limited to romantic comedies and horror flicks.  Now we just need that Wonder Woman movie.



Filed under Movies/TV, Women

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.



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.



Filed under Movies/TV, SFFH

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.


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:


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:



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:




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.



Filed under Movies/TV, SFFH