In Hollywood, the reckoning of #MeToo and Time’s Up have elicited demands for change in an industry marked by sexism, racism and inequality. And while many of those problems persist, there’s at least some promising news, according to a new study: Audiences enjoy films that star women, and those films make more at the box office worldwide than male-led ones.
A joint effort between Creative Artists Agency and tech company Shift7, the study looked at the 350 highest-grossing U.S. films released between January 2014 and December 2017 and found that films with women billed as the lead actor made more money — blockbusters and low-budget movies alike.
“Women comprise half the box office, yet there has been an assumption in the industry that female-led films were generally less successful,” said CAA agent Christy Haubegger, who assisted in the study.
Researchers also found that movies that passed the Bechdel test — popularized by Alison Bechdel’s 1985 comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For” that refers to a film that features two women who talk to each other about something other than a man — also made more money than ones that didn’t pass. While it might seem like a low bar at first glance, 40 percent of the films in the study missed that mark. Among recent hits that flunked the Bechdel test: “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Burning” and “Deadpool 2.”
Conversely, every movie in the study that grossed more than $1 billion in the global box office passed the Bechdel test. The majority of these movies were family blockbusters, including “Jurassic World,” “Finding Dory,” “Beauty and the Beast” and Star Wars’ “Rogue One,” “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi.”
The partnership for the study came through Time’s Up, an organization working to fight sexual harassment and inequality in Hollywood. Researchers examined budget data for films through Gracenote, a software company that compiles data on the entertainment industry. The study included films with budgets of less than $10 million to more than $100 million. Films qualified as female-led if a woman was listed first in promotional materials, billing blocks and credits. Of the 350 films in the study, 105 were led by women.
“This analysis affirms data showing that diversity has a positive impact on a company’s bottom line,” Time’s Up President Lisa Borders said in a statement.
Despite public promises to improve representation, and the success of films such as “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” which broke box office records with minority-led casts, the status quo remains. A study from San Diego State University found that the number of female protagonists in the top-performing 100 films fell 5 percent in 2017. In July, researchers at the University of Southern California Annenberg School released a study on more than 1,100 popular films in the past 10 years and found that little progress had been made in inclusion, despite public pressure. Across the board, popular films lacked women and minorities, both on-screen and behind the camera. Female speaking characters composed 30 percent of roles in the study’s 11-year window; in the top 100 movies in that time frame, less than 30 percent of roles were filled by minorities.
After the report was released, Stacy Smith, founder of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and lead researcher on the study, said:
“Hollywood has yet to move from talking about inclusion to meaningfully increasing on-screen representation for women, people of color, the LGBT community or individuals with disabilities,” she added.
Last year, CAA released a study that found that films with diverse casts had more successful opening weekends than those without diverse casts.