So I decided to take a quick look at where (or behind whom) Hollywood put its money. I checked both the 100 most successful movies of all time (unadjusted in boxofficemojo), the 100 most expensive movies (biggest budgets), and the 25 most successful movies of each of the last 4 years. We already know most movie leads are western white males; we have statistics -from 2006- that show up to 73% of leads in Hollywood fit this description -another more recent ones say 83%. For example in 2012, of the 67 most successful movies (all success is understood in this article as box office earnings), 53 had a white male lead, 2 had black men as leads (Django unchained and Men in Black 3) and 12 had white female leads. There has not been one single box office hit with a female lead of colour since “Sister Act” grossed US$231 millions worldwide in 1992, and its minor sequel followed with US$57 millions in 1993, both starring Whoopi Goldberg and with a mostly female cast. But this lack of success can’t be put on them, one can’t interpret this lack of box office hits leading PoC or women as a lack of interest from audiences in movies with Female or PoC leads, but as a lack of investment in movies with Female or PoC leads.
Taking a look at the 100 most expensive movies ever made; almost all of them produced in the last 20 years, we find that barely 6 of them have solo female leads, two of them animated (Frozen, Brave), two of them gritty re-imaginings of classic fairy tales (Snow White and the Huntsmen, Maleficent) and two book adaptations (The Golden Compass, Alice in Wonderland). Notice how none of them has a WoC in the lead? Also notice that the 4 live action movies with female leads are based on famous stories that in no way could have been altered to feature a male lead, which suggest that Hollywood will only invest in women when there is just no other way around. The only silver lining is that all of these movies are recent, so this could mean Hollywood is slightly and very slowly improving, but that’s not nearly good enough. In the same list of 100 most expensive movies we can find barely 6 with PoC leads, and 4 of them(!) feature Will Smith. The others are Rush Hour 3, starring Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, and 47 Ronin, with an all PoC cast but a white passing lead -Keanu Reeves- that raised a lot of complains of white washing. As you can see, Hollywood simply does not invest in movies with women or PoC at the front, and specially does not invest in WoC.
Big budgets not only mean big stars or fancy special FXs, they also mean bigger marketing; they mean a wider release and greater distribution, all things that minor and independent movies starring women and PoC just don’t get. They come and go without anyone ever finding out that they even existed. Is a good thing we have Internet these days so we can stream them, download them, talk about them, recommend them, write their names in the sky, but that doesn’t leave monetary revenue which is all that counts for Hollywood, and make no mistake, that lack of revenue is something Hollywood is counting on.
Many people argue that Hollywood movies are made for largely white audiences and thus should feature largely white casts, but that is simply not true. Only 34% of people in the US are white males and still they take over 73% of leading roles. 51% of people in the US are women, and still men take over 73% of leading roles, and Hollywood is a global industry that heavily relies on foreign markets and that is dependent on the worldwide success of its movies to make a profit. Of the 100 most successful movies in history (unadjusted-, only 6 earned more money in the U.S than outside of it, and 20 earned less than 30% of its box office tally on the domestic box office. Avatar, TASM 1 and 2, Life of Pi, Mamma Mia, Ice Age, SkyFall and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, are among the movies that earned most of its box office money on foreign markets, and all of them were huge world wide hits.
Also, white male leads don’t guarantee success. Of the 100 most expensive movies, 11 are big, recent flops, counting John Carter, The Lone Ranger, Alexander, Jack The Giant Slayer and Green Lantern, and 3 more movies that barely made the cut like Battleship, Robin Hood or Superman Returns, all with disappointing box office results and, in the case of Battleship and Superman Returns, even worse critics. Back in 2006 The Devil Wears Prada made 326 millions worldwide with a 35 million budget and a female lead. None of the aforementioned movies did as much, even with their over 200 million budgets and huge marketing campaigns. On the other side, among the scrawny list of big budget movies with female leads, we have 2 that surpassed the billion dollars mark -Alice in Wonderland, Frozen-, two big hits -Brave, Snow White and the huntsman-, one that earned enough money to save its studio but not enough to warrant a sequel -The Golden Compass- and finally one that just started rolling out a few days ago but that in its first weekend earned 170 million dollars worldwide -its entire budget. Of the movies with PoC leads, two flopped hard -47 Ronin, Wild Wild West-, but that isn’t on the actors but mostly on the terrible quality of the movies. The other 3 movies starring Will Smith were huge hits and Rush Hour 3 did ok, though not as good as the 2 previous, cheaper and more successful outings of the Tucker/Chan couple.
But wait, it gets worse. Of the 100 most expensive movies, only 10 have female co-leads -including the 2 most successful movies in history, Avatar and Titanic- and only 5 have PoC co-leads -and that’s being very generous and counting Don Cheadle in Iron Man 2 and 3. Two of these 5 movies with PoC as co-leads feature WoC, with Zoe Saldana in Avatar and Rinko Kikuchi in Pacific Rim. The last one is Marlon Wayans in GI JOE: Rise of Cobra. Of the 10 female co-leads we have again Rinko Kikuchi and Zoe Saldana, we have Kate Winslet in Titanic, Megan Fox in the first two Transformers, Naomi Watts in King Kong, Lynn Collins in John Carter, Gwyneth Palthrow in Iron Man 3, Scarlett johansson in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Cate Blanchett in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. As you can see, this is being very generous, and as you can also see, with the exception of “The Curious case of Benjamin Button”, all of these movies have something bigger and more important than the cast: the special FXs. In all of them either robots, monsters, alien landscapes or a big ship capture a lot of the attention, and also most of them are titled after the male lead (Iron Man, Benjamin Button, John Carter) or said Special FX (King Kong, Transformers, Titanic). That doesn’t take away any merit from the actors that gave amazing performances, but you have to admit humans are not the reason why you went to see Transformers, Pacific Rim, Titanic or Jurassic Park. Is as if women or PoC can’t lead a movie that actually centers on them and not on some fancy distraction.
But let’s recap and take a look at the 100 most successful movies of all time, world wide, to see how many of them feature women or PoC as leads. We already saw that only 12 of the 100 most expensive movies fit our criteria, while 16 of the most successful movies do. Three of them are animated -Frozen, The Croods, Tangled-, six are YA book adaptations -four twilights and two The Hunger Games-, three are Will Smith movies -I am Legend, MIB and MIB3-, three have white women as leads -Gravity. Mamma Mia, Alice in Wonderland- and one last one has an unknown Indian boy and a tiger as the stars -Life of Pi. May not look like much, but they seem to make more money than they get.
The exact same number of movies repeats if we focus on the domestic box office, but some of the movies change. We still get The Hunger Games and Twilight Sagas accounting for 6 of the 16 entries, Alice in Wonderland, Frozen, Gravity, I am Legend and Men in Black, but instead of Tangled we get Brave, instead of Men in Black 3 Will Smith gives us Independence Day, and instead of the surprising Mamma Mía we have the even more surprising My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The list is completed with Beverly Hills Cop -starring Eddie Murphy in ¡1984!- and Sandra Bullock’s second entry, The Blind Side.
Not only the presence of some movies like The Hunger Games, Twilight, Beverly Hills Cop, The Blind side, Mamma Mia or Life of Pi is very interesting, proving -over and over again- that audiences can connect with female leads in both action and drama, with PoC whether they are a funny black cop, a fancy secret agent or an Indian boy, but also the absence of many of the movies from the list of 100 most expensive movies is interesting too. It is a clear indication that people want to see more than only big budget action movies with males in the lead, and that no matter how big the name of the star or how much marketing you throw around, white male leads are just not enough to draw attention anymore.
But let’s take a closer look at the 25 most successful movies of each of the last 4 years in the US and see if we find something interesting that fits our criteria in the female leads department.
In 2010, six of the top 25 movies had female leads, including number (2) Alice in Wonderland, that earned over a billion and only fail to beat Toy Story 3, (4) Twilight: Eclipse, (10) Tangled, (13) True Grit -a major surprise that resulted in an Oscar nomination for Haile Steinfeeld-, (22) Salt and (25) Black Swan. Sex and The City 2 came close.
2011 delivered four movies that fit the criteria, two of them major surprises. In (3)rd place came Twilight: Breaking Dawn, proving yet again the importance of book adaptations for the creation of female lead roles -The Hunger Games, Eat Pray Love, The Help-, (13) The Help -finally a movie with a WoC in a major role, role that also earned Viola Davis an Oscar nomination-, (14) Bridesmaids, a comedy with an all female cast, and (21) Super 8, which meant the breakthrough of Ellen Fanning, Dakota’s little sister. An honorable mention is number (28) The Girl with the dragon Tattoo, another book adaptation that features Lisbeth Salander (played this time by Rooney Mara, and a few years earlier by Noomi Rapace) in the lead role alongside Mikael Blomqvist (Daniel Craig). Is worth noting that the same year X-Men First Class came in number (17), behind Bridesmaids and The Help, and Green Lantern came in (24). X-Men got a sequel, Green Lantern is looking at a reboot, but women in general still don’t get more leading roles in movies.
2012 presents us 6 movies that fit the list. Number (3) The Hunger Games, (6) Twilight Breaking Dawn, (8) Brave -out grossing (9) Ted-, (17) Snow White and the Huntsmen, (23) Silver Linings Playbook and (24) Prometheus. All of these movies out grossed big budget -male led action flicks like John Carter, Battleship, The Expendables and Wrath of the Titans.
Our last stop will be 2013, because we’ll wait for 2014 to end before we make a review. Five movies make the cut, 4 other more are worth mentioning. The most popular movie of the year in the US, (1) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, (6) gravity, (15) The Heat, (19) The Conjuring, (20) Identity Thief. Also (2) Iron Man, (17) American Hustle and (22) The Wolverine all have women in significant roles, and even though Pacific Rim didn’t make the top 25 it came close, beating movies like White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen.
Sadly, the list of female led movies is not very long, as we just saw, and the few that we found all follow pretty much the same pattern: thin, attractive white women, with very few exceptions. Even worse, the list of PoC leads is even shorter. Once you count Django Unchained, Ride Along and Will Smith, you find mostly empty alleys. There are a few minor hits -Tyler Perry’s movies, About Last Night, Instructions not included-, but nothing that could lead you to believe that non-white people make up for an important demographic group in the US, for example a group that accounts for at least 36% of moviegoers. Judging for Hollywood you’d think women and PoC barely exist. And when they do, they are mostly thin, pretty as in light skinned/Eurocentric beauty standards kind of pretty, and able bodied. According to Miss Representation, barely 5% of all major Hollywood movies feature WoC. How many Latin, Black or Asian women in important roles in major movies can you remember in the last 5 years?
Diversity in media is an extremely powerful tool of empowerment and education; media shapes the way we view the world, and that's why diversity is so important, it is not a whim, is a necessity. We need people, specially marginalized groups, racial minorities, sexual minorities, disabled people, women, immigrants, to know that they are as capable as anyone else of accomplishing as much as they reach for, or as Lupita said, to "remind me and every little child that no matter where you are from, your dreams are valid".
We can easily see that a movie starring women and PoC can be good and successful, but Hollywood apparently just won’t take any risks unless they have a major fan base from a book -THG, Twilight, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo-, a white actress sexy enough to draw attention -Tomb Raider, Maleficent-, a famous director -Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill and Django Unchained-, or the apparently only black star, Will Smith. The exceptions from these rules seem to be Gravity and Life of Pi. In the first, Alfonso Cuarón chose Sandra Bullock and refused to re-write the part when asked to -the studio wanted a male lead-, bet that paid off with a major box office hit and 7 academy awards. In the second, Ang Lee, another foreign director chose an unknown boy by the name of Suraj Sharma that had never acted before in his life and an accurate and non-whitewashed cast that perfectly depicted the initial location of the story, India. The reward was a huge box office hit and 4 academy awards, because stories about women and PoC can be as successful and wonderful as any.
It doesn’t happen often but when it happens, it pays off; it is just a matter of taking the chance. Movies with diverse casts fare better, shows with diverse casts have better ratings overall -Orange is the new Black is Netflix’s most successful show ever-, and if a movie with a diverse cast and an unknown Indian kid as lead can be a huge hit both financially and critically, then what’s with the white male lead only obsession? Is it really about the “best actor for the part”, is it really about totally made up quality standards and some supposed demands from the audience, or does Hollywood just want to perpetuate a certain power hierarchy (and will do so at any cost)?
I think I have my answer.