“Trolls.” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” “Moana.” “Inside Out.” “Wonder Woman.” All were global box-office hits that had women in leading roles.
They were also part of a broader trend. According to findings from the Creative Artists Agency (CAA) and shift7, a company started by the former U.S. chief technology officer Megan Smith, the top movies from 2014 to 2017 starring women earned more than male-led films, whether they were made for less than $10 million or for $100 million or more.
The research also found that films that passed the Bechdel test — which measures whether two female characters have a conversation about something other than a man — outperformed those that flunked it.
“The perception that it’s not good business to have female leads is not true,” said Christy Haubegger, a CAA agent who was part of the research team. “They’re a marketing asset.”
Casting women in leading roles is still more the exception than the rule in Hollywood. Women accounted for about a quarter of sole protagonists in the top films of 2017, and they played roughly a third of major characters, according to research from San Diego State University.
The new report from CAA, a leading talent agency, is part of an effort to pressure Hollywood into putting more women and people of color on-screen and behind the scenes, with proponents arguing that greater diversity improves the bottom line. In 2017, the agency released a report indicating that movies with multiethnic casts performed better on opening weekends than those with more homogeneous casts.
The new study was created in conjunction with a working group from Time’s Up, an organization fighting workplace sexual harassment and striving to improve the portrayal of women on-screen.
The question now is whether the industry will take heed. The San Diego State University study also found that the number of female protagonists with speaking roles in top films dropped in 2017 from the previous year. The new statistics suggest that those films might be hurting their earnings.
“A lot of times in our business there is a lot of bias disguising itself as knowledge,” Haubegger said.
The CAA and shift7 report looked at the top films at the global box office each year from 2014 through 2017, using information from Gracenote, a data and technology provider owned by Nielsen. (The time frame was based on a database CAA created for its diversity study.)
Taking the lead
“Lead actor” was determined by the performer listed first on Gracenote. This meant that both “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” were designated male-led films: Gracenote listed Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill as the leads for each, rather than Daisy Ridley. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” was led by Megan Fox and “Trolls” by Anna Kendrick.
The analysis was based on 350 films with budgets listed on Gracenote. Of those, 105 were led by women. The data were further broken down by budget size, partly because the tentpole films made for more than $100 million are a key part of studio business and the study’s authors decided that they needed to be considered on their own. (In that category, there were 75 male-led films and 19 films starring women.) The other categories were films made for less than $10 million, $10 to $30 million, $30 to $50 million and $50 to $100 million.
In each bracket, the average earnings for female-led films surpassed those of their male-led counterparts. The median value, or numerical middle, which is often considered more statistically significant because it reduces the impact of outliers, yielded the same results, with one exception: In the $30 to $50 million category, the median take for male-led films was $104 million, and for women it was $102 million.
The study also drew information from Bechdeltest.com, which had applied the test to 319 of the films analyzed in the CAA report. Of those, 60 percent passed. The researchers found that no film between 2014 and 2017 earned $1 billion without passing the Bechdel test and that no film has made $1 billion without passing the test since 2012.
While women account for about half of movie tickets sold, Haubegger said she believed the greater success of films starring women and people of color can be attributed to a thirst for fresh stories. “You’ve got superhero fans that haven’t seen innovation in superhero movies in 36 years,” she said.
Haubegger also said the perception that such films are risky means they face more studio scrutiny from the outset. “I think they’re less likely to take a bet on a turkey,” she said, “And the movie ends up punching at or above its weight class.”