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Women in Action 2018/2019 – Part 2 – 2019 Looking Forward

The first big chunk of 2019 is past and it’s been a remarkably busy season in the land of film. The idea of a summer season has largely been abandoned by Hollywood. While the big releases do still crowd the summer months, the expected blockbusters now start coming out in February or March and the schedule slows down only briefly in late August and September before October’s horror celebration and the run of big holiday movies for the end of the year.

And while 2018 may have been a bit more lackluster than expected when it comes to actresses in big movies and action, 2019 has been putting women front and center, and with more to come.

The Scene So Far:

The first big woman-led movie of the year turned out to be James Cameron’s adaptation, Alita: Battle Angel. Originally supposed to be out in 2018, the film got pushed back and was released unceremoniously in mid-February. It did very well in foreign box office, however, earning over $404 million globally, well past its large budget. While the white-washing of the Asian main character was not ideal, rising star Rosa Salazar did turn in a nice performance as the cyborg heroine, backed by Jennifer Connelly, Michelle Rodriguez, Lana Condor and Eliza Gonzalez.

A few weeks later, in March, we got the long awaited first woman-led movie from Marvel, Captain Marvel. The film starred Oscar winner Brie Larson in the titular role of the human fighter pilot Carol Danvers turned space warrior, along with legend Annette Bennet, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan and Akira Akbar. The movie, set in the 1990’s and being the penultimate chapter in the decade-long Avengers movie saga, was expected to do well, but it went beyond “well,” bringing in over $1.1 billion and still going in global box office. While Marvel’s future plans for films in the Marvelverse are less well-known, it now seems likely that several of them will be woman-led films, including the Black Widow prequel film.

The end is nigh.

Other woman-led films in the uneven February and March part of the season were a mix of hits and misses. Sequel time loop thriller Happy Death Day 2U debuted for Valentine’s Day, with Jessica Rothe returning to her starring role, backed by Ruby Modine, Rachel Matthews, and Sarah Yarkin. The low budget film took in over $64 million, which might mean another entry for the franchise will be in the works. Animated movie Wonder Park, starring Brianna Denski, with Jennifer Garner and Mila Kunis, successfully took in over $115 million. Jordan Peele’s much anticipated new horror movie, Us, starring Lupita Nyong’o with assistance from Elisabeth Moss and young star Shahadi Wright Joseph, brought in over $253 million and still going on a modest $20 million budget.

Actresses also scored with other low budget movies such as the reboot What Men Want, starring Taraji P. Henson, which took in over $72 million on a small budget, Rebel Wilson’s spoof Isn’t It Romantic, with over $48 million and British wrestling comedy Fighting With My Family, starring Florence Pugh for over $39 million. The action thriller Miss Bala, starring Gina Rodriguez, however, failed to do more than meet its small budget in box office. And psychological thriller Greta, starring Isabelle Huppert and Chloe Grace Moretz, did not break out, earning only a bit over $13.5 million.

April brought us horror film The Curse of La Llorona, starring Linda Cardellini, which made a successful $113 million plus on a tiny budget, showing once again that women can make horror quite profitable. Children’s movie Mia and the White Lion, starring Daniah De Villiers, only took in $26 million on limited distribution but had a small budget. Other April woman-led movies did not break through – superpower drama Fast Color, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, could not get a wide enough release; comedy Little, starring Marsai Martin (the teen actress who came up with the film,) Regina Hall, and Issa Rae, has made a small profit at $47 million so far; Rust Creek, a backwoods thriller starring Hermione Corfield, also made very little in limited distribution; Stray and A Hole in the Ground and Level 16 are horror movies that barely made a blip; and religious drama Mary Magdalene, starring Rooney Mara, only really earned in international markets as an art film.

The newest women-led movies out this month are comedy caper The Hustle, starring Rebel Wilson, who also co-produced the film, and Anne Hathaway, which has pulled in over $32 million its first week. We also got Poms, a comedy film full of older actresses, led by Diane Keaton, which has just debuted this weekend.

Ensemble Action:

Moving to the big action films where women have major supporting roles in the first part of the year, the big gorilla was the release of the final part of the Avengers inter-linked movies – Avengers: Endgame at the end of April. The giant time-travelling finish had most of the Marvel women returning, with key roles for veteran Scarlett Johanssen, Captain Marvel’s Brie Larson and Guardians of the Galaxy’s Karen Gillan. Despite not being in any way a summer release, Endgame took in over a billion in box office just in its opening weekend and is now over $2.5 billion, smashing records left and right.

Other big releases were animated sequel How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, featuring America Ferrera, Cate Blanchett and Kristen Wiig, for an over $517 million global take, and animated/live action mix The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, starring Elizabeth Banks, Tiffany Haddish and Alison Brie, which earned over $190 million, (probably less than they were hoping for.) Dumbo, a mix of live action and CGI and the latest of Disney translating their classic animated movies, starred Nico Parker and Eva Green. It took in over $344 million in box office but that is about breaking even for it because of its large production and publicity budgets. Still, Disney knows how to monetize over the long term.  Pokemon: Detective Pikachu, another animation/live action mix, just debuted and has made over $187 million globally, with supporting performances from Kathryn Newton, Suki Waterhouse and Rita Ora.

DC’s entry so far this year was Shazam! which took in over $360 million and is still climbing, and had supporting performances by Faithe Herman and young Grace Fulton. M. Night Shyamalan finally completing his superpower trilogy with much buzzed film Glass for over $247 million on a small budget early in the year, starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Sarah Paulson and Charlayne Woodard. YA romance adaptation Five Feet Apart, starring Haley Lu Richardson, did better than the YA films of last year and earned over $78 million on a small budget.

Several prominent horror films were also released this spring with mixed results. A reboot of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, starring Jete Laurence and Amy Seimetz, took in over $109 million with a very modest budget. Escape Room, starring Taylor Russell and Deborah Ann Woll, did very well with over $155 million in box office on a tiny budget. The reboot of Hellboy, which went for a more violent horror approach to the superhero, featured Milla Jovovich as the chief villain and Sasha Lane, but it failed to get much foreign distribution and has not earned past its mid-sized $50 million budget. The Prodigy, which starred Taylor Schilling, turned a small profit because of its low budget but hasn’t cracked $15 million in box office.

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It’s Time For Women in Film!

So last year, I did a two part essay called “Death of the Female Movie Star? We’re Just Getting Started” that got a bit of attention (more than 2 people read it!) That essay has come back to me in relevance several times over the last year and a half, especially Part 2 about the 2012 current involvement of women in action films and leading films. And now that we’re firmly into the summer blockbuster season of 2013, I thought I’d take the temperature of what’s going on in Hollywood again.

Now that we’ve hit Memorial Day weekend in the States and are chugging into the blockbuster summer movie season at full steam, how are things going in the film and action film arena this year in regards to women?

Clearly this year we are having a bit of a testosterone festival, dominated by Marvel (who still needs to learn to make better use of their great female characters,) by aging male action stars often paired up with younger male would-be action star actors, returning male-dominated action franchises and big SF set pieces that unlike last year don’t seem inclined to have women in the leads.

So have we gone backwards, after the surge of feminine power in 2012? Not really, if you look closely and remember that the widening of female roles in film tends to be a sneaky cultural trickle rather than a canon boom. Like last year, women are solidly in major supporting roles in many of the big action flicks, and those supporting roles see them often playing action divas as important parts of the team, not just damsels in distress. In Iron Man 3, for instance, even smart but violence averse Pepper Potts got her fight on not once, but twice, while Robert Downey’s Tony Stark had panic attacks. Fast & Furious 6 may be as macho as they come with its two male leads, but Jordana Brewster, Michelle Rodriguez, Gal Gadot and Gina Carano helped power the movie as major and active players, and that happening was a deliberate choice by the franchise. The idea of having a woman soldier, thief, spy, scientist, superhero, etc. on an action team has become routine, which means it’s going to continue and in steady numbers. Even in the Expendables franchise, whose purpose is to feature male action legends, they had to have a feisty female activist (Gisele Itie) in the first one and a female combat specialist (Yu Nan) in the second.

But how is it stacking up in action films where women are more in the lead position? It’s a mix and often in movies that get less media attention, but it’s not a bad roster in a year of Marvel, Star Trek, Will Smith and Brad Pitt.

Horror films, mostly low budget, continue to do fairly well and be female friendly. (Well, female threatening too, but that’s a whole other subject.) Women have had the lead role or co-lead role in films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D, Mama, Dark Skies, The Last Exorcism Part II, The Lords of Salem, and Black Rock; and will continue to do so in the up-coming  The Purge, The Conjuring, Random, Haunt, The Devil’s Rapture and Paranormal Activity 5.

The launch of Evil Dead in a new chapter for the beloved cult franchise starred Jane Levy and turned an extremely nice profit, ensuring more Dead movies that fans have long awaited. Another big reboot horror film is the up-coming Carrie remake, starring Chloe Grace Moretz in the title role and Julianne Moore (who wins the Gene Hackman award for being in tons of movies this year, including the lead in indie drama The English Teacher.)

On the somewhat cheesier side, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, powered by hot commodity Jeremy Renner and action heroine Gemma Arteton as titular brother and sister, did middling domestically but scored big globally. (The film got scolded for making females evil, ugly villains, which is in line with the two evil queens of the Snow White movies last year. That’s a valid point, but the other point is that all these movies are using female villains instead of the traditional male ones, where female villains were usually absent or only in supporting roles.  Like women becoming established as part of action hero teams, so too are female villains getting more play. So again, attrition towards improvement rears its head in strange places.)  Gemma Arteton is back later this year in Neil Jordan’s vampire movie Byzantium, with co-lead Saoirse Ronan, (who wins the young runner-up Gene Hackman award this year.)

The Host, from Stephanie Meyer’s SF novel (again starring Ronan,) and Beautiful Creatures from the YA series by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, both came out early in the year and basically flopped. The books were bestsellers with passionate followings, but not all in those followings were happy with the adaptations and the movies were marketed to highlight their romance elements rather than their action ones. This was presumably on the erroneous belief that the audience for the Twilight movies had little interest in action, even though emphasizing its action scenes is what helped the Twilight franchise sell. Without enough global box office (though Beautiful Creatures got most of their money there,) the films didn’t go anywhere. (And again, female villains!)

But up next in this vein is The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, starring Lily Collins of successful Mirror, Mirror last year, from the bestselling YA series. Mortal Instruments has a very big fan base and it’s chockful of horror action which has been used in the marketing so far. So it will be interesting to see how it does. Even if it doesn’t do great, expect Hollywood to keep being interested in female led YA and YA fantasy adaptations, meaning the women get a chance alongside similar male led films like Percy Jackson.

In SF, Sandra Bullock’s delayed film Gravity about a female astronaut in trouble will be coming out with all the backing of George Clooney’s production machine behind it. And November brings us the next Hunger Games film, Catching Fire, the biggest female action lead of the year with Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence.

On the less speculative thriller front, low budget film The Call starring Hallie Berry also turned a tidy profit and the crime indie Spring Breakers did extremely well. (Yes, the women in that movie were in bikinis – cultural trickle, trickle.) Up later in the year are The East, starring Brit Marling who co-wrote the screenplay, following the craze for movies about undercover work in cults, Violet & Daisy about a pair of female assassins starring Ronan again and Alexis Bledel, and the second crime spree film The Bling Ring, about a mostly female gang of teenage thieves, from female director Sofia Coppola. The female gang of thieves movies are in fact becoming a staple over the last fifteen years or so, again establishing that you don’t necessarily need Clyde to do a movie about Bonnie and have it work.

In animation, the enormously successful The Croods made use of Nicholas Cage and cute animated animals, but the story was a father-daughter bonding coming of age film, rather than the more traditional father-son film. Next up is Epic, based on the William Joyce novel, The Leaf Men and The Brave Good Bugs, which actually has a female lead, though you wouldn’t know it from the commercials for it.

In the action comedy world, Identity Thief shifted from the usual male-male dark comedy buddy tale to the chemistry of Melissa McCarthy with Justin Bateman and made a killing. McCarthy plays comic buddy again this summer and this time it’s with Sandra Bullock as two cops paired up together in The Heat. If The Heat does well, expect Hollywood to try more female buddy action films. (And not even necessarily in bikinis.)

While it would be nice to have a better showing this year for the females as leads,  (and to not have Captain Kirk sexually harass his gratuitously lingeried female scientist  underling  in Star Trek: Into Darkness or the producers of the film be obnoxious in their apologies about it,) there definitely doesn’t seem to be a backwards drift. Women still only make up about 11% of the movie leads while making up 52% of the North American viewing audience (and likely as much of the foreign audience one day soon.) But no matter how reluctantly for reasons we’ve discussed before, Hollywood will follow the scent of money and that means women are still getting more and more active seats at the table.

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