Leading Women are Dominating the Box Office

Reporting on the weekly box office is a little weird, to say the least. It’s become a strange competition where movies themselves stand in for celebrities: instead of celebrity feuds, we get to enjoy movie feuds.

The story of the weekend is that Tomorrowland disappointed with its $33 million debut ($41 million over the long weekend). This narrative is decided, of course, before it opens in most major foreign markets and it ignores home and streaming sales, where Disney regularly obliterates its competition. Remember in 2012 when Disney’s John Carter was declared one of the biggest flops in history…until we saw its foreign take and how well it did on the DVD and Blu-ray market? The film ended up breaking even – it wasn’t a success but neither were weeks of hand-wringing over its “flop” status accurate either.

Last weekend, the narrative was that Pitch Perfect 2 beat the opening weekend of Mad Max: Fury Road, $69 million to $45 million. Pitch Perfect 2 won.

That’s fine. Mad Max: Fury Road opened at $110 million worldwide compared to Pitch Perfect 2’s $107 worldwide. Mad Max: Fury Road won.

Well, Pitch Perfect 2 cost $29 million to make. Mad Max: Fury Road cost $150 million. So obviously, the winner was Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2. Wait, what?!?

Here’s an idea: multiple films are allowed to win in the same week. By the same token, we don’t truly know if a film is a disappointment or a success after a single weekend. There’s a reason the more successful analysts, like Box Office Mojo, hesitate before assigning these narratives. They lay out several paths a film’s box office could still take. Oftentimes, the best analysis of an opening weekend is the following: “We don’t know yet.”

Last weekend, Mad Max: Fury Road was a disappointment. Then it made its budget back in the first 9 days.

By focusing on nonexistent feuds when there are more than enough viewers to go around, and creating disappointments where there aren’t any yet, we’re also ignoring the most important story about the last few weeks at the box office:

Women are dominating it. Tomorrowland joined Pitch Perfect 2 and Mad Max: Fury Road at the top of the box office this week. All films are centered on leading women, with men essentially relegated to supporting roles.

Joining those three in the top 10 are The Age of Adaline, Hot Pursuit, and Far from the Madding Crowd. All of these are centered on women. Poltergeist is an evenly split ensemble, while Avengers: Age of Ultron and Furious 7 are ensembles that feature women leads. The only film in the top 10 that doesn’t feature a leading woman is Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2.

Yet look past the top 10 and you’ll find films that have hung around long past the expiration dates expected of movies their size: Home (11), Ex Machina (12), Woman in Gold (13), Cinderella (14), and I’ll See You In My Dreams (15).

Let’s break that down. Of the top 15 movies in the United States this Memorial Day weekend, 11 are built primarily around women. Another three are ensembles with both men and women. The last is Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2. Well, nobody’s perfect, America. (Number 16, if you’re wondering, is the unfortunately-named-for-this-article Get Hard.)

The weekend before this, it was 12 of the top 16 movies (Piku, The Longest Ride, and Unfriended having dropped off the list while Tomorrowland and I’ll See You In My Dreams hopped on.)

This isn’t unique, though. It’s just something we pretend not to notice as a culture. Look at the top 6 earners of all-time: Avatar, Titanic, The Avengers, Furious 7, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, and Frozen. What do they all have in common? Women in a leading role.

It’s not anything new. Adjusted for inflation, the highest grossing movie of all-time is Gone with the Wind. The Sound of Music is at #3. Titanic, Doctor Zhivago, The Exorcist, and Snow White join that all-time top 10. Six of the movies in the top 10 feature a leading woman. This doesn’t even include the The Wizard of Oz, led by Judy Garland. While it didn’t hit in theaters, it’s earned more in syndication (adjusted for inflation) than any other film.

Look at 2014 in the United States. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and The LEGO Movie all featured women in leading roles. Throw Guardians of the Galaxy on there, too, and 4 of your top 5 earners featured women as leads. Add in Transformers: Age of Extinction and Maleficent, and it’s 6 of your top 8.

2013 featured The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Frozen, and Gravity – 3 of the top 6 box office spots centered on films led exclusively by women. Women owned live-action comedy in 2013: The Heat, American Hustle, We’re the Millers, and Identity Thief featured and advertised heavily off of women in leading roles.

Yet we have e-mails from Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter saying that women can’t launch superhero films, and women are still paid less for their roles in films than men who don’t have the same history of box offices success. I catalogued the number of issues Marvel and Disney are having trying to pretend Avengers doesn’t feature women last week.

Look, seeing Men’s Rights members play at victory as if Sylvester Stallone came down from the heavens just to stop Mad Max from a #1 opening himself while they pretend to ignore the entire existence of Pitch Perfect 2 is a source of endless amusement, but we live in a world where we’re always looking for the next big thing.

Meanwhile, Chris Hemsworth can’t get anything to make a profit outside of Thor movies (consider Rush, Red Dawn, and epic flop Blackhat). Matt Damon has launched more flops in the last five years than hits. Jeremy Renner had the keys to both Bourne and Mission: Impossible taken away. Outside of playing Wolverine, Hugh Jackman has as many flops as hits. Tom Cruise (Oblivion), Will Smith (After Earth), and Keanu Reeves (47 Ronin) can’t be relied on to launch big-budget films on their own anymore. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career post-governorship has been a disaster.

The next big things are sitting right in front of us, growing impatient. Yes, you’ve got Jennifer Lawrence accepted as an action lead because there’s no way you could stop her, but you’ve also got Rose Byrne: 15 of her last 16 movies made a profit, including some of the most unbelievable returns-on-investment of the last decade. What about Alice Braga, Zoe Saldana, Kristen StewartRooney MaraMia WasikowskaScarlett Johansson, and Dakota Fanning sitting on the sidelines, at best picking up after the boys in supporting roles despite having far better box office credentials?

We could do this all day, but I think I’ve made my point. FiveThirtyEight already proved that films featuring women actually earn better than films that don’t.

Is a weekend like this proof that Hollywood is changing when it comes to the kinds of stories it’s telling? It’s a start, but more credit goes to audiences. Like Pitch Perfect 2, many of the films that make up this weekend’s list are smaller movies that no one expected to do nearly as well as they have. Their production and advertising budgets pale in comparison to bigger event films, yet audiences are seeking them out anyway.

The truth is, the biggest budgets still go to films with male leads and women still write only 11% and direct only 2% of major releases in a given year. So please keep on doing what you did as viewers this last weekend and the weekend before. You have all those films listed above to choose from. More importantly, keep an eye out for other films that put women in the foreground instead of hiding them in the background. The more we appreciate it, the more we seek it out. The more we seek it out, the more filmmakers and studios have to adapt to accommodate our changing tastes.

Box office stories that highlight some films as disappointing and others as having feuds don’t matter. What matters is what viewers do on the whole. No one film shapes the box office, but weekend after weekend of choosing the kinds of movies you’d like to continue seeing in the future does. That’s the kind of difference at the box office worth writing about.


Do you agree that it’s time for women have more roles in Hollywood? What actress do you think is getting overlooked for her big break?

 Additional Images: Design Trend



Gabriel Valdez
Gabriel Valdez
Gabriel is a movie critic who's been a campaign manager in Oregon, an investigative reporter in Texas, and a film producer in Massachusetts. His writing was named best North American criticism of 2014 by the Local Media Association. He's assembled a band of writers who focus on social issues in film. They have a home base.