Tag Archives: Terminator

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

The Robots are Coming!

A few weeks ago, Philip Athans did a column at the Grasping For the Wind review site about the popularity of vampires and his hope that robots would be the next “vampire,” i.e. hot trend:


This statement of Athans is incorrect: “Publish a vampire book that’s a little too gory or a little not gory enough, a little too sexually explicit or a little too chaste, and you’ll still sell more than any of your traditional fantasy titles.”

Vampire titles, despite all the media attention they’ve been getting the last two years, sell no more than non-vampire fantasy titles, and they follow the same pyramid structure of all fiction sales — a small group at the top that does incredibly well (the big, shiny objects we notice the most,) a larger group that does pretty well, and an even larger group that doesn’t do very well at all. A large percentage of the titles put out that have vampires in them don’t sell well, the paperbacks getting pulped in three months, the trade paperbacks or hardcovers lasting a bit longer. Contemporary fantasy overall is doing well in the market, but your average alternate world fantasy title still often outsells it. But we will forgive Athans his hyperbole because he is an excellent SFF author and SFF non-fiction writer too.

And the good news is that Athans’ wish for a robot spike of popularity is actually probably on the way. To wit:

1) Last year, A. Lee Martinez did the mystery novel The Automatic Detective, which was well received.

2) Gonzo film director/writer Spike Jonze did a short film Robot Romance that did the film festival circuit to great acclaim and is airing on the IFC cable channel.

3) Tron: Legacy (okay software people, but still sort of robots,) is due out this year and Disney is pushing it royally.

4) Jerry Bruckheimer has bought the film rights to the graphic novel World War Robots.

5) On the world front, we’re getting Gaiking, a Japanese crossover film about giant robots, and Bollywood is doing a robot movie with famed actress Aishwarya Rai.

6) Short Circuit, the classic robot sentinence story, is being remade.

7) Matel’s crusade to turn all their classic toys into movies is producing the Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Robots movie, with accompanying new toys. Transformers will return with a third installment.

8 ) Ryan Reynolds is still on board to do a Marvel movie about Deadpool, the crazed cyborg mercenary.

9) The Terminator series — the most famous robot story of all — has been sold to a hedge fund and Lionsgate and Sony are trying to make a deal with the fund to take over the franchise and start it up again soon.

10) SF author Daniel H. Wilson’s novel Roboapocalypse is in development for a film which will likely be directed or produced by Steven Spielberg.

11) Next year gives us the film Real Steel, starring Hugh Jackman, about robot boxers in the future.

12) SF Romance is now the fastest growing sub-category of category romance and is bound to include some robots in there.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg! But there is some competition for robots being the next new hot trend, and it’s not werewolves. It’s aliens! There are a bunch of alien movies, etc., coming down the pike. The V remake is currently on t.v. I’m eagerly awaiting Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s movie Paul, due next spring. So there may be a battle. But both are SF, so that should make Athans happy.

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