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Gendernomics and the Anatomy of Summer Blockbusters

So I wrote this piece for KSR College back in July, but have added a bit to it. Recycling it here as it seems even more relevant today that summer is coming to a close. Happy Labor Day. So here it is Funkhouser!

There are rules that most always hold true if you want a safe bet for cutting a large profit on a summer blockbuster. It should involve superheroes, Pixar-esque animation, or an excess of action and explosions, along with a popular or very trendy headline actor. This has been the summer of the sequel, following up one of the above ideas that’s already worked once, or five times, doesn’t bother producers or moviegoers.

If you’re like me and scour the internet in search of your next movie fix then you too may have been surprised by a few of the winners and losers at the box office this summer–that may have “defied the rules.” For example, This is the End, The Conjuring, and Now You See Me are three films that did quite better than anticipated, while two big name and big budget films, After Earth and The Lone Ranger, flopped, when on paper each should have been at least moderate moneymakers.

  1. Iron Man 3 ($408 million)
  2. Despicable Me 2 ($350 million)
  3. Man of Steel ($290 million)
  4. Monsters University ($261 million)
  5. Fast & Furious 6 ($238 million)
  6. Star Trek Into Darkness ($227 million)
  7. World War Z ($198 million)
  8. The Heat ($156 million)
  9. The Great Gatsby ($144 million)
  10. The Conjuring ($131 million)

Concentration face

But overall there are few surprises at the top this year–Iron Man 3, Despicable Me 2, and Man of Steel held onto their top three domestic gross spots for the year, with the latest release in the Top 10 being the only horror flick, The Conjuring at number 10.

Superheroes and kid’s movies rule, but if you don’t have the rights to Marvel or DC characters and need to make something for adults, put The Rock, Mark Wahlberg, Channing Tatum, Gerard Butler, or any other hyper-masculine type into just about any role of crime fighting, world saving badassery and studios assumed it would be a decent summer hit with little mental elbow grease.

This trend of not even just jacked up men, but men in general, as the features of most all of the films that we see is evident.  Of the 100 most successful films at the box office in 2012, 28.4 percent of the speaking characters were female; this is actually a drop from 32.8 percent in 2009.

Of the dozens of movies that I have seen in 2013, especially within the most lucrative summer blockbuster season, very few feature women in any semblance of a leading or even commensurate role with primary male characters.

Movie Demographics


Despite this fact, I found this riveting (sarcasm alert) chart that shows women consistently comprise a larger share of moviegoers than men. So what keeps women coming to the movies when many summer films primary female “character” is dressed like Lara Croft and makes out with Vin Diesel then is only seen again when she must be rescued?

Well, for one thing clearly there are plenty of women who enjoy watching The Walking Dead on Sunday nights or get just as excited to see Iron Man 3 as their significant others. The narrow scope of “the chick flick” isn’t the only movie that can piqué her interest. Tony Stark’s army of Iron Man suits buzzing around the screen fighting against genetically altered mutant superbeings? Yes, I’m on board.

How each gender enjoys and consumes mass media and pop culture is more complex than a Hollywood producer’s demographics spreadsheet determining whether a white, high school graduate, female from the southeast will see film A.

In addition women are accustomed to limited options when it comes to what pop culture to consume–from Nickelodeon to Disney, to post-adolescence, male characters dominate the screens. Typically when a major female character is featured in a movie she’s a Lois Lane, someone who’s continuously needing to be rescued or pining after a male lead who looks like Henry Cavill.

Archery is popular with the ladies..

And when a character like Katniss Everdeen does become popular, it’s difficult to elude the comparisons to other “girl power” clichés that become too reductionist, for example Pixar’s 2012 flick Brave (she doesn’t want to wear a corset, never heard that one before).

This is not meant to be a rant about the horrors of patriarchy, merely a conversation that shows how television and film, especially the big summer budget films studios count on to rake in the cash, are failing to take advantage of one half of society that has money to spend.

Wesley Morris of Grantland must read KSR College because he had some great things to say in his “The Biggest Winners of the Summer Movie Season” that complimented mine perfectly:

I don’t believe in movies for women and movies for men. I believe in making a movie and seeing who shows up. But it just seems insane for a studio to spend the most important four months of its year ignoring more than half its potential audience. There’s probably a perfectly logical business-executive justification behind this. But this summer when a movie prominently featured a woman, it was a hit, regardless of the genre. It doesn’t entirely matter who, demographically, is seeing these movies (although the goal should be making something any woman, young or old, would want to see, like The Great Gatsby), just that putting a woman at the center of it hardly spells doom.

The-Heat banner bullock mccarthy.jpg

The dichotomy between two films that opened June 28The Heat and White House Down, illustrates an anomaly in what production companies have come to expect from audiences, and the tangible, monetary outcome.

The opening weekend for Roland Emmerich’s mega-budget action movie, White House Down, starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx should have been an easy second place finish for Sony behind Monsters University (no way was it going down), or at worst third behind World War Z on its second weekend. Instead, Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock’s cop comedy, The Heat finished in second place while White House Down earned a dismal fourth. Costing an estimated $150 million to produce, White House Down was the second summer blockbuster in Sony’s circle to flop, After Earth being the first.

The Heat was directed by Paul Feig (all hail the creator of Freaks and Geeks); he was also behind McCarthy and Kristen Wiig’s 2011 hit, Bridesmaids. Opening to over $40 million, The Heat has since made over $116 million, holding strong in the top three at the box office for 2 weeks. With its modest budget the movie has been a clear financial success following the raunchy, “Hangover for women” style comedy that many said wouldn’t work for Bridesmaids two summers ago.

And another raunchy, rated R buddy cop comedy, 2 Guns, featuring Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg is going to finish 23rd in the summer box office, making $90 million dollars less than The Heat, whose budget was 1.5X less.

A box office beatdown of one film by another, or even several, certainly does not signal some monumental shift in gender roles in movies, but it indicative of the fact that movies targeted toward women, featuring female characters outside of romantic comedy or drama roles, can be financially successful, even in the summer when competing with more traditional masculine fare.

Creating a movie that is exactly the same as a Die Hard or the plot of Olympus Has Fallen (both of which were released in 2013) has grown so tired that even epic explosions and muscles can’t reel in audiences, at least not on this occasion with White House Down. But it could certainly work next summer.

As a frequent moviegoer, I’m just asking that we mix it up a bit.

As Wesley Morris put it, “This is to say that we will never get tired of seeing Earth blow up. We just don’t want to see Earth blown up every week.”

The two movies opening nationwide the weekend I originally wrote this post were Grown Ups 2 (its trailer isn’t in this, I’m too bitter) and Pacific Rim. I’m genuinely unsure if either of these films had a woman in their entire cast. Regardless, the trailer for Pacific Rim admittedly had me pretty excited–Guillermo del Toro, monstrous sea creatures, giant robot/transformer things, aliens, and some sort of Prometheus or Skrillex inspired background music? AWESOME.

Del Toro, known for employing the enchanting and fantastical in Pan’s Labryinth and Hellboy pulled out all the stops in a larger than life action movie. Although it didn’t pan out at the box office, this movie is arguably somewhat original being that it’s not one of the scores of sequels or franchise films of summer (though if you didn’t enjoy the new Star Trek and Iron Man you’re just no fun).

Pacific Rim wasn’t the biggest flop of the summer (remember, Will Smith AND Johnny Depp), especially with no big names in the cast. It made $99 million with a production budget of $190 million, barely sitting ahead of Jennifer Aniston and Jason Sudekis’s comedy We’re the Millers (an almost leading lady!) in the final box office tally.

This goes to show that not every movie, even in the summer summer, has to have an enormous budget, or be part of a franchise for a studio to profit; and it may even be possible for women to have speaking roles in movies outside of Oscar season.

It’s difficult to keep cinephiles of any gender from the theater, but diversifying storylines and casting could attract new audiences, more revenue, and keep us all a bit more interested in the summers.  There are $4.2-$4.3 billion at stake during the summer blockbuster season, and I know we all want to see some more Jennifer Lawrence. Put her in a summer movie producers, you may get close to $5 billion.

Or crank out Fast & Furious 17, obviously someone will see it.

Article written by Brennan English

Just give me all the bacon and eggs you have. @BrennanKSR