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Putting Money on the Bechdel Test (GRAPHS)

Thompson on Hollywood By Anne Thompson and Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood April 2, 2014 at 4:51PM

The Bechdel test has proven an intriguing -- if far from wholly accurate -- method of figuring out a film's level of female character development. Are there two women in a given film? Do they talk to each other -- and about something other than men? In a fascinating piece on FiveThirtyEight, the Bechdel test is assessed from a financial standpoint.
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Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins in 'Blue Jasmine'
Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins in 'Blue Jasmine'

The Bechdel test has proven an intriguing -- if far from wholly accurate -- method of figuring out a film's level of female character development. Are there two women in a given film? Do they talk to each other -- and about something other than men? In a fascinating piece on FiveThirtyEight, the Bechdel test is assessed from a financial standpoint. The conclusions are both depressing and hopeful.

Using films made between 1990 and 2013, the study shows that films which didn't pass the test had -- surprise! -- predominantly higher budgets than those that did. The median budget for a non-Bechdel-passing film is $48.4 million. The median budget for a film passing the test is almost $20 million less: $31.7 million. Clearly Hollywood doesn't value women who like to talk to one another about, say, their jobs or travels or ambitions or emotions.

But now for the silver lining: despite those films receiving less budget, they didn't fare any worse at the box office. In fact they had a better return on investment. Check out the graph below.

Look at movie like "Gravity," which boasts both a high budget and a significant lead woman who qualifies as an "action hero." That movie scored over $700 million the worldwide and wins Oscars to boot. When all revenues come in, Sandra Bullock may collect not just her $20 million advance, but as much as $70 million, largely from her 15% gross participation. And the actress has proven her action chops as well. There was a time that many people thought Bullock should be relegated to the constricted romantic comedy niche along with most other actresses. Cameron Diaz, Angelina Jolie, Michelle Rodriguez, Jennifer Lawrence and now Shailene Woodley have proven that women can perform in action movies as well as men. (Meanwhile, producers keep paying aging ex-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger not to open movies like "Sabotage.") Give women more high-quality commercial opportunities, Hollywood, and believe me, they will deliver. 

I weigh in on why Scarlett Johansson should be able to carry a Marvel superhero movie and why Hollywood is so myopic when it comes to women and action on Studio 360

Bechdel graph

And here's the graph for the median budgets:

Bechdel graph 2


This article is related to: News, Features, Women in Film, Bechdel Test


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.