This is an article I wrote for the Huffington Post almost two years ago, on March 5, 2011. Given that today is International Women's Day, I thought it was appropriate to post here again in honor of the occasion. (It was that, or buy everyone a cake.) It's also worth noting that in the two years that passed since I wrote this, every word was proven true last summer.
It's so nice to be ahead of the curve. Though annoyingly insane that that was the case here.
Audiences Won't Go to See An Action Movie That Stars Women
The other day, I was talking with a knowledgeable Hollywood expert, discussing recent successes and failures at the box office. Eventually, we got to Sucker Punch, an action film with five actresses that cost between $85-100 million, yet which had only taken in $36 million at the box office. "Once again," he said, "this proves that audiences won't go to an action movie that stars women."
It's a common observation in Hollywood. A wise saying. One of those Hollywood Rules.
And it's not true.
Not even remotely.
The thing is in Hollywood, where creativity and trusting your gut is king, most people do little research, less analysis and almost no critical thinking on their own. Even most of the knowledgeable experts. Instead, they "hear things." And pass that along. The more people you "hear things" from, the more informed you are. It gives new meaning to the phrase, "artificial intelligence."
Before we get to the general rule itself, that Audiences Won't Go to See an Action Movie That Stars Women, and see how totally wrong it is -- it's important to understand the process of how this lack of thinking for yourself works. So, let's start at the opposite end and pick a case study, the most current example of the "truism," Sucker Punch. Let's see if by analyzing something, other reasons might appear why it actually failed - rather than what everyone in Hollywood knows: that Audiences Won't Go to See an Action Movie That Stars Women.
To begin with, and this is a really good place to start, on the Rotten Tomatoes website its cross-section of national critics gave Sucker Punch an incredibly low 22% rating. According to reviewers, it wasn't a good movie. Shockingly, audiences generally won't go to those.
Second, not one actress in the film is even remotely close to a recognizable film star. They may be talented, but for most people they were also unknown. To spend $100 million on a movie without a cast anyone can name seems a questionable decision. After all, audiences usually are intensely wary of going to see movies that star people they've never heard of. Okay, it worked for Star Wars -- but then that budget was a mere $11 million. Adjusting for inflation, its budget was still only $40 million. And to hedge its bet had Sir Alec Guinness.
Third, much of the movie was made with the technology used in 300, where it looks like animation. How many people saw the ads and thought Sucker Punch was a cartoon? Here's a news flash. Guys like to see beautiful women. Less so cartoons of beautiful women.
Fourth: Sucker Punch didn't make the reported $36 million. That's just its domestic box-office. Internationally, it grossed more than in the U.S., an additional $54 million. So, the total is, in fact, $90 million. Not great, but it's more than double the misperception.
Finally, Sucker Punch did lose money. But that loss is significantly affected by someone spending almost $100 million to produce it. The stated criticism about this genre though isn't about loss at all, but rather that Audiences Won't See an Action Movie with Women. Yet, in fact, $90 million worth of audience wanted to see it. Make the movie for the $40 million Star Wars would have cost today, and the perception of its box-office is totally different.
Sucker Punch lost a lot of money. But it lost the money because a company spent $100 million to make a horribly-reviewed, half-cartoon that starred Emily Browning, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Abbie Cornish and Jamie Chung. And Hollywood wags are using this to blame actresses, to prove that Audiences Won't Go to See an Action Movie That Stars Women. Because it's convenient and easy. (And snidely sexist.) It's harder to analyze, understand and say, "The company made a lot of really bad decisions. Like, perhaps, a weakly rewritten script, an unknown cast, a bizarre concept, heavy-handed direction, and spending far, far too much money."
And now we push the story forward, and take a larger look.
Myth Perception is common in Hollywood. It's an industry where, bizarrely, the rest of the world doesn't exist. People in Hollywood myopically are aware only of domestic box-office. Never mind that money made anywhere actually counts as "money." And never mind that the international box office can often be twice...or even three times as big as in the U.S.
Last year, Alice in Wonderland grossed a $334 million in the U.S. But huge as that is, around the rest of the world it still took in an astounding $690 million more. Its real total is $1.024 billion. That's not huge, it's gargantuan.
At the other end of the spectrum, Gulliver's Travels flopped. It made only $43 million in the U.S. No one wanted to see it. Unless you lived, well...everywhere else. Its worldwide gross is $216 million. May you all flop that badly...
Above all, though, there are few places where the Hollywood Myth Perception is as problematic as with women action movies. The original Charlie's Angels was a fluke, of course, grossing $264 million worldwide. The sequel, however, such a monumental disaster that everyone knows it killed the franchise. Proving, definitively, that Audiences Won't Go to See an Action Movie That Stars Women. Right? Except... well, the sequel actually grossed $259 million). A mere five million dollars less than the original.
Hollywood also has a convenient short-term memory when it fits their purposes. In my conversation with that Industry expert, he called Sucker Punch the latest in a line of "big budget" women' action movie that flopped, which again proves...well, you know. But only eight months earlier, Salt cost even more -- $110 million -- and grossed $295 million worldwide. And just two years before, yet another women's action film, Wanted, cost $75 million and made $341 million worldwide.
More to the point, if eight months is too far back to remember, Hollywood experts ignore the reality staring right at them today:
Mars Needs Moms cost $150 million and made $35 million worldwide. Does this prove audiences don't want to see cartoons about kids? Or about outer space? Are studios going to stop putting moms in their cartoons?
The Lincoln Lawyer has made $60 million worldwide. That's 50% less than what Sucker Punch grossed. Will studios stop making movies with Matthew McConaughey? To its producers' credit, it cost a lot less. But that's budget. As for audiences, far more people wanted to see women in an action movie than wanted to see even Matthew McConaughey.
Hanna made more than Arthur which opened the same day. So, an action movie with a young girl did better than Russell Brand. Then again, so did Soul Surfer, about a young girl.
Paul has made $76 million worldwide. Hall Pass made $63 million. Both less than Sucker Punch. Surely, this must mean audiences don't want to see goofy buddy movies. Again, they each only cost $40 million, which was smart. But again, more people wanted to see unknown women in a mediocre action half-cartoon than wanted to see goofy buddy comedies.
It's all part of the easy false Myth Perceptions that Hollywood keeps passing on and on. And on. And on.
By the same token, men get a pass when they don't have a blockbuster. George Clooney has had a houseful of wonderful, massive hits. But he also made The American, which grossed $68 million worldwide. And The Men Who Stare at Goats $69 million. Leatherheads $41 million. Good Night, and Good Luck $55 million. And The Good German $6 million.
Sucker Punch grossed $90 million. More than each of these. But to Hollywood experts, George Clooney is box-office royalty, but Audiences Won't Go to See an Action Movie That Stars Women.
The reality is that bad action movies with women will do poorly. (Ultraviolet only made $31 million.) But so will bad action movies with men. (The well-done, but overly-long The Assassination of Jesse James starring Brad Pitt grossed a paltry $15 million - worldwide). However, when you make an action movie with women that isn't SO bad it offends rocks, audiences will go see Wanted. ($341 million worldwide.) They'll go see the Resident Evil franchise. (The last one alone made $296 million worldwide.) They'll see the Underworld franchise. (A fourth will be released next year.) And the Charlie's Angels movies together made half a billion dollars. The Kill Bill series made $330 million. A women's action picture in Chinese (!), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, made $214 million worldwide. Lara Croft made $275 million. The flop Lara Croft sequel made $157 million - yet that's more than The Adjustment Bureau with Matt Damon, Source Code with Jake Gyllenhaal, and Limitless with Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro. All three. Even with today's inflated ticket prices.
A dismal flop as terrible as Aeon Flux made $52 million worldwide - just about the same as The Lincoln Lawyer made. Further, since winning the Oscar, Charlize Theron has starred in eight movies...and the awful Aeon Flux has made more - by far - than ALL of them! In other words, audiences would rather see Charlize Theron in a bad action movie than...anything.
And yet, whenever one of these occurs, we're told that they're exceptions. Over and over and over again.
I certainly understand the Hollywood reaction to Sucker Punch, which was a big flop. But I also understand that it flopped for reasons totally different than what Hollywood neatly wraps up in a package and ribbon. Because there is much larger reality:
No matter what Hollywood Expert Pundits think, wrongly - audiences worldwide go to action movies that star women. Often in huge numbers. Often when big male stars do far worse than a woman's action film opening at the same time. It's factual, with hard, irrefutable evidence that continually supports this. Over and over. And over.
Hollywood experts love to simplify decisions that confirm their predetermined prejudices. It takes the concept of having to think out of the equation. It lets you put responsibility on others. "I was told that..." So, it's not your fault. Which is just as well, because what Hollywood thinks is so often demonstrably wrong.
UPDATE: As mentioned, this was written in March, 2011. Last years, in the summer of 2012, the following action movies that starred women opened.
The Hunger Games -- worldwide gross: $686.5 million
Prometheus -- worldwide gross: $403.4 million
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo -- worldwide gross: 232.6 million
Snow White and the Huntsman -- worldwide gross:$396.6 million
Brave (animated) -- worldwide gross: $535.4 million
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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