Hollywood execs aren't scared, they're just dumb: If research shows movies about women make money, why do they still have to fight to be made?

Jodie Foster says it's a "risk averse time" in film, but a study shows women-centric movies are actually less risky

Published May 12, 2016 5:06PM (EDT)

Charlize Theron in "Mad Max: Fury Road"        (Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
Charlize Theron in "Mad Max: Fury Road" (Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

Why doesn’t Hollywood make more movies with women in them? According to Oscar-winner Jodie Foster, it’s because executives and producers are afraid that female-driven films are a gamble during an uncertain period. “Studio executives are scared, period,” Foster said during a recent interview at the Cannes Film Festival, where the actress is premiering “Money Monster,” her fifth directorial feature. “This is the most risk averse time that I can remember in movie history.”

Despite the fact that “The Force Awakens” and “Jurassic World” helped Hollywood have its biggest year ever in 2015, folks like Steven Spielberg have long warned that these returns may be diminishing. The acclaimed director claimed in a 2013 speech that the “implosion” of the movie industry is inevitable, similar to the crash that tanked the studio system in the 1960s. Facing these prophecies of impending doom, Hollywood has hedged its bets, doubling down on massive franchises starring white men. These include recently released superhero properties like “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” “Captain America: Civil War,” and “Deadpool.”

A new study, however, suggests that putting all its chips behind white men may be a very bad proposition for the film industry. MaryAnn Johanson, who runs the popular feminist film website Flick Philosopher recently issued the “Where Are the Women?” report, which indicates that equal representation for women in film poses very little danger to the bottom line. Johanson found that, for instance, “movies that represent women well are just as likely to turn a profit as movies that don’t represent women well are.” She concludes, “In other words, no loss of profit results from treating women like people onscreen.”

It may actually be more costly for studios to continue to marginalize women’s voices—both onscreen and behind the camera. If Johanson found that there was little statistical difference in the box office returns of films that were gender-inclusive and ones that weren’t, there’s a key difference: Movies with women in them actually proved a much better return on investment for studios. “Since movies that represent women cost 20 to 24 percent less to produce and are just as likely to be profitable, movies about women are actually less risky, as business propositions, than movies about men,” she writes.

A prior study from FiveThirtyEight discovered the same: The website tracked 1,615 films released between the years of 1990 and 2013, finding that movies that passed the Bechdel Test were actually more profitable overall. The test, first posited in Alison Bechdel’s “Dykes to Watch Out For” comic strip, has three rules. To pass, the film has to 1) have two or more female characters with names, 2) who talk to each other, and 3) discuss something other than a man. Films that earned a Bechdel thumbs up made $2.68 for every dollar they cost to make. Ones given a thumbs down only made $2.45.

These are just a few of the many, many studies that all prove the exact same thing: Movies that have women in them make money. While gender-inclusive films as diverse “Pitch Perfect 2,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Fifty Shades of Grey,” and “The Hunger Games” earned bank last year, a survey from Mic showed that their success was not a fluke. Between the years of 2006 and 2015, the website found that “top-grossing movies about women earned $45.5 million more at the box office than movies about men.” In fact, years with the healthiest total box office revenue also tended to be the most female-friendly.

Despite these findings, Hollywood has been very slow to change—whether it’s in terms of gender diversity, racial inclusion, or LGBT representation. A recent study from GLAAD found that the number of queer characters depicted on screen actually got worse in 2015, marking a new low since the organization began doing its “Studio Responsibility Index.” Meanwhile, women account for more than half of the total population and are the majority of all filmgoers, but they remain dramatically underrepresented behind the camera. Just six percent of film directors are female.

Jodie Foster believes that Hollywood can be better—and that it has taken small steps toward improvement in recent years. Growing up in the industry, the 53-year-old explained that she hopes to be a part of that push. “I was raised by a single mom, and even though the world told me that there weren’t a lot of women directors, I decided that I was going to be one,” she said. But in order to allow more women to be a part of the change, the industry needs to stop looking at them as a potential liability. If continuing to exclude half the population is bad for business, the riskiest thing Hollywood could do is keep ignoring what should be blatantly obvious by now.

By Nico Lang