Where Have All the Leading Ladies Gone?

Is it the season, or sexism, that accounts for fewer female-driven films?

June 20, 2008— -- It's that time of year again, when young men take over the seats — and the screens — at multiplexes around the country, and when film industry watchers ask and get asked whether it's time to perform the last rites for Hollywood's leading ladies.

Despite the success of films such as "Sex and the City," which led the box office on opening weekend, the question of why there are so few female-driven films remains. One reason the subject won't die is because movies such as "Sex and the City" are still the exception.

"Women-starring and women-targeted movies are still a niche business — a sometimes successful niche business," said Elizabeth Guider, editor of The Hollywood Reporter. "But they are still the counter-programming and not the main event."

Another reason is because of comments such as the one made by a male Warner Bros. executive that lit up the blogosphere last fall after the films "The Invasion," with Nicole Kidman, and "The Brave One," with Jodie Foster, fizzled at the box office. According to the online chatter, Jeff Robinov, Warner's president for production, declared the studio would no longer make films with women in the lead.

Guider said it was actually someone else who made the comment and Robinov who denied it and tried to clean up the fallout, but that ultimately it doesn't matter. "Whoever it was, there was something to that comment," Guider said. "Warner took the whole big tent pole theory to a completely new level in the last eight to 10 years. There is no doubt that this skew has been decidedly male."

At no time is this more apparent than in the summer when Hollywood rolls out its big tent pole popcorn movies, usually with the word "man" or "boy" in the title — as in "Spiderman," "Ironman" and "Hellboy." Summer is dominated by big special effects movies, action heroes like Will Smith and Harrison Ford, funny guys such as Steve Carell and Mike Myers, and the young male audiences who go to see them.

In the summer, women tend to take a backseat or a supporting role to men. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Pepper to Robert Downey Jr.'s "Ironman," Liv Tyler plays Betty to Edward Norton's "Hulk," and Anne Hathaway will play Carell's girl Friday in "Get Smart," which opens this weekend.

There are a few summer films where women take the lead, such as the big-screen spin-off of the American Girls dolls, "Kit Kittredge," starring 12-year-old Abigail Breslin, which opens this weekend and goes into wide release July 2; "Wanted," in which Angelina Jolie plays an assassin; and "The House Bunny," starring Anna Faris as a Playboy Bunny who, at 27, is deemed too old for the mansion.

For the most part, the movies that appeal to women — lighter on the effects and heavier on the dialogue — are released in the fall. "The Changeling," the Clint Eastwood drama also starring Jolie as a woman fighting to get back her child, is scheduled for the fall, along with the remake of "The Women" by "Murphy Brown" creator Diane English, starring Annette Bening, Jada Pinkett Smith, Meg Ryan, Candice Bergen and Eva Mendes.

What about the rest of the year? Are there fewer films with leading ladies on the big screen than in the past? The answer is not clear cut.

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.)

Now Hill is getting her calls returned from studios interested in her projects that center around female leads. "I think it's changing," she said, while adding that sexism, racism and ageism are still very much alive in Hollywood. "The only incentive is economic viability. I don't think there's an altruistic mandate. But the reins are there for you to grab. They're up for grabs."