Changing the Conversation: Women and the Box Office
Casey Newton is the hero the future, and cinema in general, needs. She is extremely intelligent, determined, optimistic, and is willing to sacrifice everything for causes she feels are just. Even if it means sabotaging equipment that will be used to demolish a NASA launch pad – once the demolition is complete her father, a NASA, engineer, will be out of a job. Newton is the ultimate symbol of hope. The dreamer who can see the light through the grim death obsessed fog that mankind exists in.
Yet no one is talking about her.
One of two key female characters – the other being the artificial intelligence known as Athena – in Brad Bird’s ambitious, though not always effective, film Tomorrowland, Newton (played perfectly by Britt Robertson) has gone relatively unnoticed in a summer season where women have come out swinging. While I had some issues with Newton becoming a bit of a passenger in the final act – the messiest section of the entire film – her presence was a welcome addition to the growing list of strong female characters.
In a perfect cinematic world Newton would be the precursor to Mad Max: Fury Road’s butt kicking heroine Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). A woman untainted by the human greed that threatens to destroy the world as she knows it. Sure she may lack the physical prowess of Theron’s remarkable character, but both Tomorrowland and Mad Max: Fury Road share quiet a few traits. Aside from being films were mankind is the makers of their own doom, both films feature lead female characters who are equals, either intellectually or physically, to their male counterparts. It can be argued that Newton represents the brains, and Athena the brawns, of Furiosa.
The fact that the top three films for this year’s Memorial Day weekend (Pitch Perfect 2, Tomorrowland, and Mad Max: Fury Road) all had empowering female characters is something that we should be rejoicing. Frankly, it is a trend I hope will continue to flourish to the point where it is no longer needs to be discussed.
However, it is the discourse that I find most fascinating. Despite having an unshakeable hold on the box office, Pitch Perfect 2 is still talked about as if it is an anomaly. A film that managed to connect with audiences, but is not necessarily the blueprint studios will follow. An odd viewpoint considering that the sequel made more in its first weekend, than the original did in its entire theatrical run.
The bulk of the intellectual chatter has centred around, and rightfully so, Mad Max: Fury Road. That film is a breath of fresh air within a genre that makes strides towards gender equality at a snail’s pace. It has been wonderful reading the numerous think pieces on why not being overtly feminist has actually made Fury Road the perfect female positive action film. The fact that asinine men’s rights groups – really, how does such a thing even exist? – got all up in arms about the strong female characters in what should be a “male” action movie, no doubt fueled the conversation further.
Though it has not lit up the box office the way pundits expect, it is trailing Pitch Perfect 2 domestically but doing slightly better than the musical ladies internationally, there is already talk of the possibility of a new Mad Max trilogy. Hardy is reportedly eager to return, but there is no word on whether Furiosa will make a cameo appearance in any of them. Tomorrowland has not been as lucky. After a disappointing opening – the Disney film debuted at number one but its $40.7 million haul was nowhere near its reported $190 million budget. – the focus has been on whether or not this will cause studios to shy away from original projects, especially ones with prominent female characters.
The disturbing thing about this is how quickly one financial bomb threatens to setback the whole equality movement in the minds of some. Disney has already announced that it is scraping production on TRON 3, which many see as the first domino in the Tomorrowland fallout. While not a female-driven franchise, the fact that they were even planning to make a third TRON film, after TRON: Legacy’s less than stellar reception, is fascinating in itself. Similar to Mad Max, it seems that blockbusters marketed more towards men are given several chances at redemption.
So Ghost Rider, TRON, and Pacific Rim all get multiple chances at the plate, but Tomorrowland’s strike out is reason not let female positive blockbusters into the batter’s box?
The math simply does not add up.
To put things in perspective, this is the same industry that has put the majority of its eggs in the lucrative comic book basket, but is still gun shy about the notion of female superhero films being viable commodities.
Disney may grumble at Tomorrowland underperforming, but they also have the Marvel and Star Wars franchises to cushion the blow. Not to mention all the existing animated properties that they are planning to adapt into live-action films. Will the performance of Tomorrowland stop the studio from making its female driven Star Wars: Rogue One spin-off? No. The Star Wars brand is simply too powerful to fail financially. However, similar to the Mad Max franchise, Star Wars is still predominantly marketed to young males, despite the fact that women now make up more than half of the film industry’s audience.
It is disheartening that, despite the recent success of female driven movies like Maleficent, <em Cinderella, and Pitch Perfect 2, strong female characters are still considered a risky venture. All it takes is one slip to crack the thin layer of ice women are allowed to skate on. Instead of praising the fact that director Brad Bird felt comfortable enough to effortlessly incorporate characters like Athena (confidently portrayed by Raffey Cassidy), a more wholesome cross between and Kick-Ass’ Hit Girl and The Terminator, and Casey Newton, literally the smartest person in the room, the conversation is making things seem even more dire than they should be.
It is time to loosen the leash a little bit. Just because a film, with strong female representation, does not meet expectations financially it should not be a death sentence to all future female positive blockbusters. It should not even be the first point of discussion.
At some point we need to get to a place where strong female characters are so common in film that their presence no longer needs to be addressed. They can be part of both successful films and failures without having to carry the whole weight their gender’s cinematic impact on their shoulders.