Hollywood has long treated actresses like second-class citizens, but 2015 could finally be a turning point. Only three months into the new year, two of the three top-grossing films have been headlined by strong female characters: Universal’s “Fifty Shades of Grey” starring Dakota Johnson (with a worldwide gross of more than $550 million), and Disney’s “Cinderella” with Lily James in the title role and Cate Blachett as the evil stepmother (to the tune of $260 million worldwide).
“Insurgent,” the second installment in the “Divergent” franchise starring Shailene Woodley, is performing strongly with more than $180 million worldwide so far. Women comprised 60% or more of the opening-weekend crowd for all these movies.
“Things have changed in the last year, and that’s mainly because one hit after another has been female-driven,” said Celine Rattray, a producer of “The Kids Are All Right” and co-founder of Maven Pictures. In the past, she added, “The whole industry would act shocked that women like seeing films about women.”
And the summer will feature a bounty of female roles, with “Trainwreck” (headlined by Amy Schumer), “Spy” (with Melissa McCarthy and Rose Byrne), “Pitch Perfect 2” (starring Anna Kendrick and directed by Elizabeth Banks), “Hot Pursuit” (a buddy comedy starring Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara), “Tomorrowland” (with newcomer Britt Robertson propped up by George Clooney) and “Magic Mike XXL” (where Jada Pinkett Smith slips into Matthew McConaughey’s leather chaps).
It’s not just studio movies that are giving women the spotlight. Film festivals have already debuted enough breakout performances in indie pictures to pack next year’s Oscars — and fall festival season will bring a whole new crop. Audiences at Sundance were wowed by Saoirse Ronan in “Brooklyn,” Blythe Danner in “I’ll See You in My Dreams” and Lily Tomlin in “Grandma.” Sally Field became the darling of March’s SXSW with her tour-de-force performance in “Hello, My Name Is Doris,” a comedy that’s about to land distribution. “I’ll never have a similar character offered to me again,” Field told Variety. “They don’t write roles for women anyway, and they certainly don’t write roles for women of age and women of color.”
Even though women make up 50% of the box office, studio executives still often focus on greenlighting movies dominated by men (see “Spider-Man,” “Batman,” “X-Men” and “Iron Man”). When hits emerge, such as “Sex and the City,” “The Heat” or “Twilight,” the industry treats these films as exceptions. But the widespread popularity of “Hunger Games” and “Maleficent” has forced Hollywood to treat the female audience as a key demographic, not an afterthought.
“As a working producer, I’m certainly hearing much more conversation about making movies for women and girls than I ever have at any point in my career,” said producer and Women in Film president Cathy Schulman. “But I don’t think that’s changing for women behind the camera.”
In fact, the situation for female directors appears to be getting even worse. In 2014, women represented 7% of directors of the 250 top-grossing films, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, down 2% from 17 years ago. Though this year’s Sundance boasted notable films from female directors such as Marielle Heller (“The Diary of a Teenage Girl”) and Leslye Headland (“Sleeping With Other People”), filmmakers who emerge from the festival circuit don’t get the same opportunities as men.
“It’s perplexing and it makes me want to tear my hair out,” said Lucy Fisher, producer of “Insurgent.” “The facts are staring us in the face and they’re very bad. The more people are conscious of it, the more efforts will be made to address it.”
Movies are still playing catch-up to TV, which thrives on strong female roles, from “Scandal” to “How to Get Away With Murder” to “Girls.” Part of the reason is economic. Directors say that there are still numerous hurdles to cross when securing financing for a film headlined by a woman. “We were turned down by everyone we sent it to,” says Brett Haley, the director of “Dreams,” who funded his $500,000 project by relying on individual investors. “Everyone was like, ‘How can we market a movie about a 70-year-old woman?’’
Michael Showalter, who directed “Doris,” experienced the same reticence in Hollywood: “Not only did people not want to take the risk, they didn’t know what to make of it,” Showalter says. With a little luck, some of these women will end up with Oscar nominations, an acknowledgment that Hollywood can overcome its phobia of women who reach a certain age. “When you look at the history of the Academy Awards, female roles are not as rich as the roles given to males,” said Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics and the distributor of “Grandma.” “It’s regrettable because we have this treasure trove of great actresses who are underserved.”