NEW YORK – A study organized by Time's Up, the organization formed to promote gender equality in Hollywood, has found that female-led films consistently outperform male-led movies at the box office.
The study analyzed the 350 top-grossing films worldwide released between January 2014 and December 2017. Researchers found that in films with small, medium and large budgets, all averaged better global grosses when a woman was listed as the lead star.
This analysis, if accurate, would seem to be a stunning failure of attention to the bottom line by the people (mostly men) who currently run Hollywood – a failure spanning decades.
However, the study's definition of "female-led" films might be different from what an audience would perceive. The study defines a "female lead" as a female actor who is listed first in official media materials – such as "Wonder Woman" starring Gal Godot.
But "Captain America: Civil War," a film that made at least $1 billion worldwide and features leading women (Scarlett Johansson, Elizabeth Olsen) in the superhero ensemble cast, would be in the male-led bucket because, as most viewers might conclude, the real stars are male actors such as Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr.
And "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" is also a male-led film because mega star Harrison Ford gets top billing even though the movie, from the audience's perspective, is mostly about Daisy Ridley's character, Rey.
"There is a perception in our industry that female-led films don’t make as much money and that's partly why we don’t make as many of them, and we just wanted to know: Is that true?" says Christy Haubegger of the talent agency Creative Artists Agency, which conducted the study with tech company shift7, in an interview with USA TODAY.
"And we found, when comparing apples to apples in terms of budgets, the data do not support that assumption; in fact the female films slightly outperformed at every budget level."
How could Hollywood have not known this already? Haubegger says it's not because studio executives are stupid or sinister; they're just prone like many business people to making decisions based on anecdotal experience instead of data.
"This is a creative business that is as much about art as it is about science and business," she said. "We’ve just operated under some assumptions and we wanted to see if those assumptions were backed up by data."
So now what? Haubegger and shift7's Megan Smith, a former chief technology officer and top assistant to former President Barack Obama, say they are already starting to present the study's data to studio chiefs in hopes that they will be open to making more movies featuring female protagonists in the future.
"It would be good for us as a society and for our economy, and it's a sound business decision that isn’t the risk it was seen as in the past," Smith says. "What's important is seeing the breadth of humanity on the screen."
The study also looked at another aspect of diversity in movie-making: whether films that passed the Bechdel test do better at the box office, too. The Bechdel test, an invention of the cartoonist Alison Bechdel, rates whether a movie features two female characters having a conversation about something other than a man.
Researchers found every $1 billion film at the box office – including films like "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," ''Jurassic World," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Captain America: Civil War" – passed the Bechdel test.
Among films that cost more than $100 million to make, the ones that passed the Bechdel test grossed on average $618 million worldwide, while those that didn't averaged $413 million. Depending on budget data from Nielsen's Gracenote, researchers determined lead actors by the cast order listed in a movie's billing block (the text at the bottom of a movie poster), media notes or final credits.
Of the 350 films studied, 105 qualified as female-led and 245 registered as male-led. The greatest gap was in larger budgeted films. In movies with a budget greater than $100 million, there were 75 male-led films and 19 female-led films.
The study was headed by a Time's Up working group led in part by Amy Pascal, former chairman of Sony Pictures.
Earlier research by academics has chronicled similar rates of inequality in top-grossing Hollywood releases, and the financial benefits of inclusion.
"This is powerful proof that audiences want to see everyone represented on screen," said Pascal. "Decision makers in Hollywood need to pay attention to this."
Contributing: Maria Puente