Yesterday, the numbers crunchers at fivethirtyeight.com, the guys and gals who have predicted elections, took a crack at the conundrum of women, movies and money. Not surprisingly, they found what we have been saying at Women and Hollywood for the last six and a half years: Women are not a bad film investment. In fact, as Cate Blanchett said, women onscreen make money.
Whether having guys like Walt Hickey under Nate Silver's fivethirtyeight.com banner will effect the powers that be in Hollywood in ways that we, and other folks, who have been saying this for years remains to be seen, but we don't care who gets it through their skulls. The point is that the numbers show that women, and stories about women, are not box-office poison. They are box-office successes.
My new best friend Hickey took the low bar of the Bechdel Test and found that even those movies make money. Again, we reiterate, along with Hickey, that the Bechdel Test is an inefficient and insufficient means of tracking the quality of films. Instead of the current test, I would like to propose the Bechdel Test 2.0. While I am sure that fewer films would pass this test, it is a better representation to analyze films that star women. Here are the two points I propose (h/t to Martha Lauzen).
1) Does the film have a female lead or leads?
2) Does the woman/women have agency in her/their life, i.e., is she a real and meaningful character?
While the movie Red would pass the original Bechdel Test, it would fail the Bechdel Test 2.0 because the film is not a story about women. Conversely, Gravity would fail the original Bechdel Test, but it would pass the 2.0 version.
The fivethirtyeight.com data unearths one of the biggest problems for films about women: they are much smaller budgeted than stories about men. Movies where there are two women who talk to each other about something other than a man have lower budgets than movies that fail the test by 35%. That means that from the get go, movies with women in them who talk to each other are at a disadvantage in the box-office wars because they do not compete on an even playing field with the men. So why should writers and producers put women together in a movie when keeping them apart will get you $25 more million dollars to work with from the studios?
This is one of the most fundamental problems in Hollywood today: women are valued less then men, and in turn, our stories are valued less.
fivethirtyeight.com even debunks the holy myth that the growing foreign box office (it now makes up 70% of the total box office) is made up of male-loving audiences. Turns out that movies that pass the Bechdel Test are successful at the foreign box office too. They return $1.17 for each dollar.
Here's the conclusion of the piece:
Hollywood is the business of making money. Since our data demonstrates that films containing meaningful interactions between women do better at the box office than movies that don’t, it may be only a matter of time before the data of dollars and cents overcomes the rumors and prejudices defining the budgeting process of films for, by and about women.
Let's be real. The people who run Hollywood know these numbers. They get data breakdowns on every film they have. They know what's making money and what's not. But they are all invested in these big-budget tentpole action and superhero films that star men. That's how they think. We can only hope that seeing women be successful in big blockbuster films will help break through the sexism that pervades Hollywood. I am hopeful, but I am also realistic. They've been leaving dollars at the door for years, and yet they still double down on male superheroes. Go figure.