In 2006, there were four female-driven films — five if you count the ensemble musical "Dreamgirls" and exclude all the romantic comedies with co-equal male and female leads — in the Top 60 grossing films, according to Paul Dergarabedian of Media By Numbers, a Los Angeles-based box office tracking firm. Only one of those, "The Devil Wears Prada," which starred Hathaway, cracked the Top 20.
The following year, women fared better, with three female-led films in the Top 20: "Knocked Up," "Juno" and "Enchanted." There were a total of five in the Top 60, which meant they had to earn more than $43 million that year," Dergarabedian said.
So far this year, five films with female leads, "Sex and the City," "27 Dresses," "Hannah Montana," "Nim's Island" and "Baby Mama," have grossed at least $43 million, according to Dergarabedian.
So what do all the numbers mean? "Some of these have done very, very well," Dergarabedian said. "I think 2007 might have been a watershed year. But perceptions are built over years of study. And over the years, we have not seen as many female-driven movies, especially at the top of the box office chart."
Jeanine Basinger, the chair of the film studies department at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., says her perception is that the number of women on screen has been improving — slightly — but not terribly much has changed in the 40 years she's been teaching. For one thing, every year for the last 40 years, she's been asked the same question: Why are there so few leading ladies?
The problem is, she said, great female stars do not last as long as male stars, 10 years to men's 20 or 25. It's why you can still find Harrison Ford playing "Indiana Jones," but you won't see Julia Roberts playing "Pretty Woman" anymore, Basinger said. In fact, Roberts was the last modern big box office female star, according to Basinger and Guider.
It was a lot different when Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck and Myrna Loy were stars, and the studios built movies around them and their on-screen personas. "Once the studio system collapsed, they stopped seriously developing vehicles for female stars and things got out of whack," Basinger said.
Guider agrees that age is a factor, but also points to money. She figures that 80 percent of the highest-paid actors are men, so their agents try to line up more projects for them, and the studios try to create bigger blockbusters to earn back the amount they are paying them.
But independent producer Nia Hill, who has had her own production company for 11 years, remains optimistic. She says there are more opportunities for female-driven movies in an industry that has been shaken up by mergers, studio collapses, new distribution channels and smarter consumers. "It's the Wild, Wild West again," she said. "You have to go mark your territory."
"In the very recent past, the first thing you'd say is 'female lead,' and they would pass," Hill added. That has changed with the recent success of "Baby Mama" and "27 Dresses." ("Sex and the City" stands apart, she said, because it was built on a successful television show, and having four leading ladies is secondary to that.)