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Historically, Hollywood hasn’t been kind to women. From early film noirs imprinting the evil femme fatale stereotype in our minds, to the still mostly unbroken glass ceiling (lack of female directors, lesser paid female stars, women comprising only 28.7% of all speaking roles in movies), the film industry swings heavily in favor of men. It also goes without saying that the countless sexual assault allegations that have recently poured out - as well as demanding physical expectations - continue the pigeonholing of women as objects rather than artists in the industry.
In many ways Hollywood is just a microcosm of the world, which makes sense when you consider that movies are basically just a concept where humans play God and create fictional realities for themselves. So it’s no surprise then that what makes Hollywood tick is only an offshoot of greater themes plaguing humankind.
2017 finally brought a collective sigh among women exclaiming “I can’t take this anymore,” beginning with worldwide protests and closing on a movement that’s ousted multiple high profile men from positions of power which shows no signs of slowing down. The “silence breakers” of the #metoo campaign even won TIME’s Person of the Year accolade. However, there is still a long way to go, both in the movies and IRL.
The Jane Wick Phenomenon
With that, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the recent trend of female-led movies – remakes and reboots for the most part, including Ghostbusters, Ocean’s 8, the ongoing Expendabelles production - as well as upcoming The Nice Girls and Lord of the Flies – was an indicator of the changes currently augmenting the film industry, no less the world. Although when you consider that movies take at least a year or two to make, even longer once you factor in ideation and studio bartering, the numbers don’t quite line up. These films were well into production before Weinstein-gate AKA when the world woke up to the fact that women in the industry have it tough.
So what’s the deal with all the gender swapping, why the change of heart? Colloquially known as the “Jane Wick” phenomenon (a play on John Wick) wherein a successful franchise is remade with women in leading roles, a key reason behind it – like much else in Hollywood - is fiscal. Women have spending power, or as the Harvard Business Review put it so bluntly: “Women now drive the world economy.” Their contribution exceeds high growth markets like China and India, confirming the female economy has very lucrative business potential.
Madeline di Nonno, chief executive of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, confirms our suspicion that swapping in females for men pays dividends at the box office, saying, "Films that are led by females, can they generate box office? Yes. Do they generate more revenue at the box office? Yes, they do."
In 2015, female-led films made 15.8% more on average than male-led films. While the number fell to 7.3% in 2016, it's still a significant advantage when single percentage points means millions of dollars at the box office.
Last year's top three grossing films all featured female leads (Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Beauty and the Beast, and Wonder Woman) proving that female-driven stories can do well at the box office even when it's not simply a gender swap of existing, male-led intellectual property.
But There’s A Catch
While this phenomenon does benefit both actresses and the bottom line, it unfortunately creates a catch 22 that sets women up to fail. In most of the aforementioned gender swap remakes, they are more inclusive of women, but studios don’t entrust female directors and writers to actually tell the stories. The byproduct more often than not is a bad movie, bad press, bad earnings, and ultimately a continued bad narrative surrounding women in filmmaking.
It's almost like the hood ornament that adorns a Rolls Royce, the Spirit of Ecstasy, a winged female deity in a billowing cloth. Producers are happy to have females front-and-center, but they don't necessarily want them behind the wheel.
As long as motives in the industry remain solely focused on box office success and not on diversifying Hollywood’s output with genuine stories, this new effort will be nothing but a flash in the pan.
Start Hiring Female Directors
With the lack of access afforded to female directors, it’s unsurprising that women aren’t given the opportunity behind the scenes as much as onscreen. The overwhelming success of Wonder Woman surprised many, with Patty Jenkins the first woman to direct a live-action, theatrically released comic book superhero film. The real kicker? It’s one of the best superhero films in recent memory.
The true glass ceiling for women in Hollywood is behind the camera. In 2017’s top 100 movies, women accounted for 8% of directors, 10% of writers, 15% of executive producers and 24% of producers. That’s it.
Ghostbusters, Ocean’s 8, Lord of the Flies, and The Nice Girls – all have or are being brought to screen by men in directing, producing and writing roles, with women relegated to co-writing and co-producing duties. It’s a formula that’s baffling: why make movies based around women if they are only going to be shaped by men? Women behind the scenes are just starting to see the light of day and this year’s Oscar nominations prove that, but for female stories to truly work we need female filmmakers telling them.
Original Stories Are Key to Success
Hollywood has a thing for remakes, that’s pretty clear by now. They’re (relatively) safe bets for box office turnover thanks to an assumed pre-existing fanbase. Problem is, when you’ve got studio heads churning out female-led stories – which is fairly new territory, at least on a blockbuster scale – you want some sort of guarantee on investment. And what better way than to promise that through a franchise that will undoubtedly sell tickets?
The problem with this setup is that as we saw with Ghostbusters, it flopped. Hard (becoming the most disliked trailer of all-time on YouTube). Remakes and reboots are tricky territory at the best of times, but when studios add to that expectation by performing a gender swap and expect similar, if not better, results? It’s a move that’s set up to fail with women bearing the burden.
It's Not All Bad
With all of that said, there are some positive instances where studios have done more than just perform a simple bait-and-switch – and unsurprisingly the results have been good. Angelina Jolie’s blockbuster spy outing in Salt was originally written for Tom Cruise. Eventually the actor turned the role down, worried it was too similar to his Mission Impossible character. Rather than sub another male actor in, Columbia Pictures executive, Amy Pascal, suggested Jolie for the role and the rest is history. The entire plot was reworked to better fit a female lead (nixing the idea of her as a mother) and thanks to that level of attention and respect the movie holds up.
And although J.J. Abrams had always intended Rey’s character in The Force Awakens to be female, Episode VII helped usher in a new wave of female leads in blockbuster filmmaking. Ultimately it’s the time and commitment given to crafting strong female characters that enables a movie’s success. Hollywood is certainly capable of these things, it’s just a matter of treating women as more than one-dimensional beings, or as Game of Thrones writer George R.R. Martin put it so abruptly: “You know, I’ve always considered women to be people.”
How Hollywood Can Do Better?
For starters, it needs to slow down on the remake train. It’s tired and audiences are better than that. It goes for both genders; studios green-lighting rehashed stories is akin to shooting filmmakers in the foot before production thanks to high expectations on preloved franchises. It usually doesn’t make for great viewing, no matter what you’re expecting.
While they’re at it they need to cut down the male micro-managing. What good is it to introduce more female content when it’s ultimately a man (or many men) pulling the strings? Clearly women’s stories sell, it’s just a matter of bringing to screen the most genuine and well-rounded movies possible, and that is much less likely to come from men thinking they know what women want rather than utilizing the real thing.
Most importantly, when these upcoming blockbusters that are calculated to succeed yet have a good chance at failing at the box office, don’t blame women. Blame a flawed system that tries to predict fiscal success in a setting which can’t truly be controlled.
Hollywood’s attempt at reparation is progress despite the murky motive, but until the overwhelmingly male-dominated studio boards are willing to hand over the responsibility of bringing these stories to life by women, it’s simply a fresh slick of paint on an otherwise crumbling facade.
For more movie news, check out the trailer for 'Deadpool 2.'