Will the box office change the gender balance in film?

23 March 2012

My branch of academia is surprisingly often termed a “social science” — which funny if you know what most of us actually do — but I admit: I love numbers. (If you knew how bad I am at splitting a restaurant cheque between 4 people, you’d also find that pretty funny.)

Numbers are satisfying for feminists because they show conclusively how rampant are the inequities in today’s film industry. And here’s what I’m wondering: will the box office ultimately alter the skewed gender balance in film?

Have I mentioned recently how much I pour over statistics of women’s roles in Hollywood? Because it’s one thing to complain anecdotally that female characters are more heavily stereotyped and sexualized in film than male characters, and another to look at the numbers. And on the eve of the premiere of The Hunger Games, a film that pre-sold more opening-day tickets than any other film in history, it’s worth wondering why those numbers remain so skewed.

Let’s tick through a few numbers, shall we?

Women get fewer roles than men. Women get only 32.8% of speaking roles onscreen, meaning that there are more than 2 men for every 1 woman with lines appearing onscreen. In children’s film and TV the numbers are worse — about 2½ male characters for every 1 female character.

Fewer than 17% of films have a balanced gender ratio of male to female characters, as defined by featuring women in 45 to 54.9 percent of speaking roles. Only a tiny number of films have a majority of female speaking characters (2007=5 movies; 2008=6 movies; 2009=5 movies).

Female actors receive significantly lower pay than male actors. Just to give one example: as Melissa Silverstein points out, Jennifer Lawrence is making $500,000 for the first Hunger Gamesdespite having been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for Winter’s Bone, while Chris Pine of the recent Star Trek reboot made $3 million for his second big feature, Unstoppable. (See here for a nice assessment of the Forbes account of top-earning actors; for middle- and low-range earners the gender gap is just as stark.)

Behind the screen the numbers are, if anything, worse. In 2011, only 5% of the 250 top-grossing films were directed by women. That number has dropped since 1998, when the percentage was 9%. When it comes to nominations for Best Director, an even tinier number gets noticed by the Academy. In the 84-year history of the Academy Awards, 4 women directors have been nominated for Best Director. Considering that there have been some 413 nominations in this category overall, that means that women directors have received 0.9% of all nominations. The number of female directors of films screened at film festivals is significantly higher but still a fraction of overall films — 22% of all films screened at major film festivals between June 2008 and May 2009. But let’s keep in mind that sometimes festival films fail to get picked up by distributors, no matter how appealing they are to festival attendees.

Women make up 28 percent of TV writers and 17 percent of film writers, as a Salon story indicates. Their salaries also showed a discrepancy: white men $98,875, versus women $57,151 — for a whopping wage gap of $41,724.40.

These number differences are just as stark at other levels of the industry — in children’s film and TV content, in animation — and behind the scenes it worse; it is estimated there are 4.8 men for every 1 woman in that area of the industry (see the Geena Davis Institute’s findings in various fields).

Yeah, I wondered about gender disparity when I saw the ads for Chris Pine’s new movie, This Means War, too. Now I know why.


So why — how — can I possibly ask a question like the one I’ve posed about the box office changing things? Because The Hunger Games isn’t the first box office hit to feature a female star.

Johanna Schneller of Toronto’s Globe and Mail (thanks again, Tam!) has a great piece that analyzes the Oscar-nominated films and shows wide discrepancies between what the women-oriented films earned and those prominently starring men:

The top three films starring actress nominees were The Help, Bridesmaids and Dragon Tattoo, which made $170-million, $169-million and $101-million respectively (all figures U.S.). The top three films starring actor nominees were Moneyball, The Descendants and Extremely Loud, which made $75.6-million, $71-million and $29.5-million respectively. You don’t even have to be able to add to see that discrepancy.

And remember how I don’t like to add?

Schneller concludes: “So what does this mean? Well, it seems to suggest that pictures headlined by women are finding a way to be both commercially successful and lauded by their peers. Perhaps women’s pictures have to try harder – to be richer, more thoughtful, more satisfying – to get made in the first place, but, in general, those are the kinds of films Oscar favours.”

And, we might add, audiences like them too.


So now The Hunger Games is due to open. As a big fan of the books, I’m bracing myself for disappointment — how could they possibly do justice to this novel, with its rich interior monologue? But here’s the thing: whether or not the film succeeds with the critics, it’s obvious it’s going to sell a hell of a lot of tickets.

Here’s my question: at what point will the box office force Hollywood executives recognize that films with female leads sell tickets AND often get Oscar love? When will they get over their obeisance to male audiences between the ages of 13 and 45, as if those viewers only want one sausage fest after another?

Maybe you’re ambivalent about this film, too — but believe me, buying a ticket to see it on opening weekend makes a difference to how Hollywood views female-oriented films. If you’re going to see it, see it this weekend — and make a point.

5 Responses to “Will the box office change the gender balance in film?”

  1. FD Says:

    I agree. Female leads have better box office appeal. Reason? Men will go to see a movie with a male lead and a female co-star. But, men usually won’t flock to see a movie with a female lead and a male co-star. Women will go to both as long as the story sounds engaging.

    The problem is not that women have less box office potential. They have more. The problem is that today, movies are mainly green-lighted by young male decision makers who court the juvenile, predominantly male, action audience.

    Reason? It’s easier to lure these kids into theaters without taking time and effort to develop a good story. Also, action films have better international box office potential, since there’s no need to translate explosions, car chases, fight scenes, narrow escapes, and other movie cliches, where men behave as badly as the screenwriter’s imagination.

    Will this ever change? Probably. But, it will take more “John Carter” $200 million box office bombs to get the dim bulbs replaced in studio executive offices. The industry needs more disastrous opening weekends before they’ll see the light.

    • Didion Says:

      I was wondering about your words when I went to see The Hunger Games on Friday — opening night, and those kids in attendance were not only dressed up, but jacked up on a hell of a lot of sugar — and I was impressed to see that the audience was probably a good 40% male. There were large groups of high school-age boys; young boys with both parents, and a good number of adult men attending in couples or in threes or fours.

      Hollywood’s received wisdom has always been that men won’t see a movie with a female lead, but I wonder if that’s necessarily true? Give them a lead like the Hunger Games’ Jennifer Lawrence, and maybe all bets are off.

  2. FD Says:

    I thought you might be interested in this piece on gender/box office issue from today’s story about The Hunger Games in The Wrap.


    • Didion Says:

      This writer’s math is even worse than mine, or she’s prone to a Fox News-style hyperbole. She explains that opening-weekend audiences for the film were 39% male/ 61% female, and then she says “Absent were any young men.” Later she calls men/boys “no-shows.” Those numbers are pretty similar to the numbers of college attendance (43% male/ 57% female), but no one says that college is “absent” of men or that men are “no-shows.” 39% male audiences are pretty goddamn healthy male audiences — and let’s remember that this is opening-weekend stuff.

      Maybe girls are just better at scoring opening-weekend tix. Sort of like how they’re better at getting into college.

  3. […] Will the Box Office Change the Gender Balance in Film? via Feminema […]

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