Why female-led films outperform male-led movies at the box office

PHOTO: Gal Gadot in "Wonder Woman."PlayClay Enos/Warner Bros.
WATCH News headlines today: Dec. 12, 2018

This year has been a pivotal time for women in Hollywood with the emergence of the Time’s Up and the #MeToo movements.

Feminism has been pushed to the forefront, and more women in film are raising their voices for gender equality in show business.

A recent Time's Up study examining top-grossing films in the U.S. found that those with female leads outperformed male-led films. The data examined 350 films, released from January 2014 to December 2017, across all budgets.

Of the films examined, 105 are categorized as female-led and 245 are categorized as male-led.

Studio System by Gracenote, an entertainment database, determines the status of a film’s lead by who is listed first in the film’s press materials. Trailers and one-sheets were used when that information was unavailable, according to the website.

When assessing co-leads, the first name listed in the database for the film was considered the lead.

The study, conducted by Los Angeles-based talent and sports agency Creative Artists Agency (CAA) and shift7, a technology company, categorized the pictures into five budget levels: under $10 million, $10 million to $30 million, $30 million to $50 million, $50 million to $100 million, and over $100 million.

Movies with female leads grossed more money every category.

"This is powerful proof that audiences want to see everyone represented on-screen," said Amy Pascal, Head of Pascal Pictures and former chairman of Sony Pictures, in a press release. "Decision-makers in Hollywood need to pay attention to this."

Christy Haubegger, an executive at CAA who worked on the project, said the group intended to eradicate a very common stigma in the film industry.

"What we knew is that there was a perception, when we talked to the women executives and producers and asked why we don’t see more female protagonists," she told ABC News.

"One of the quick responses everybody had was it was perceived to not be as lucrative -- that female led films don’t make as much money. That was an assumption that most people in our industry were working with. Then the question was 'Well is that true? Is that backed up by data?'" said Haubegger.

The group’s findings proved the opposite. "This critical, conventional wisdom is actually just not true, and we certainly should be able to see a greater number of female protagonists going forward," she added.

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The findings give hope to many within the industry.

“The report released today confirms what many of us have known: that films with women at the center are good business and good entertainment,” said Kirsten Schaffer, executive director of Women In Film Los Angeles, a group that advocates for women working in the film industry, in a statement to ABC News.

The study also examined which films passed the Bechdel test, which measures if a film has at least two female characters who speak to each other about something other than a man.

The films that passed this criteria outperformed those that did not, of the 350 films examined in the study.

"The Bechdel Test is a low bar to clear, and it’s surprising how many movies don’t clear it," Liza Chasin, founder of 3dot Productions, said in a press release. "Understandably, the studios think about the bottom line, so it’s great to see a growing body of data that should make it easier for executives to make more inclusive decisions."

Megan Smith, shift7 CEO and former U.S. Chief Technology Officer, said a lot of people haven’t heard of the Bechdel Test and are often surprised at how basic its criteria is.

But what might be even more surprising is the results when using the test to examine the films from this study.

"It’s such a low bar and yet 40 percent of the films didn’t pass," Smith told ABC News.

Haubegger and Smith realized people wouldn’t pay attention to their position that female-led films do just as well as male-led films if there wasn’t substantial data to back it up.

"A lot of us bring a personal sense of mission to this work, but the truth is we know if we don’t attack it from an economic point of…if people do things because it’s only the right thing to do then it rarely becomes sustainable,” Haubegger said.

The two can only speculate on why viewers are more attracted to female-led films. But they asked women in the industry, including producers and executives, for their theories, and found common threads.

"We all believe that because of this perception -- that female led films aren’t as lucrative -- that we’re more careful when we make one. So we’re less likely to make one that’s not completely buttoned up and for whom we have not really dotted i's and crossed t’s and have a script that’s in great shape, development through a green light.”

“The additional scrutiny means that we don’t slip on anything by the time we green-light a female led movie, so there’s a little bit of additional care that’s gone into that because there’s a perception that they’ve been a financial risk,” she added.

Another take on why viewers might be more inclined towards female-led films relates to diversity and inclusion.

"Nearly 50 percent of the ticket buyers in the United States are people of color. They’re only, according to our research, about 26 percent of key characters. Likewise with women. Women are 50 percent of ticket buyers but they are only less than a third of the protagonists," Haubegger shared, based on findings of a previous CAA diversity in film study.

"In both cases what you see is an under-served audience, who are avid moviegoers. And these avid moviegoers, when they see something that speaks to them -- somebody who reflects their own experiences and their own reality -- they tend to respond positively. I think that is in part why you see additional interest."

The mission of Time’s Up continues to advance with the evolution of the film industry.

"This idea that the content can be more dimensional and include more people -- and more people can see themselves in the media, seems to matter," Smith said. "On behalf of our economy and our social issues, we really need to have more balance on-screen to see the whole breadth of humanity."

"We don’t want what we see on television to accelerate part of the population and build their confidence and decelerate the other part of the population and destroy their confidence," she added. "We want everybody to be lifted by authentic, beautiful storytelling."

"We’re hoping this gives people a little bit more opportunity and causes people to think about female-led stories," Haubegger said.

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