As summer movie season winds down, women-driven films are front and center. “Wonder Woman” is the top title, “Atomic Blonde” starring Charlize Theron opens wide, Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit” begins limited runs before its nationwide release, and “Girls Trip” is on a $100 million trajectory. All of this underlines a good story for female-based films that began this spring with”Beauty and the Beast,” the year’s #1 film in worldwide release.
Does that mean a breakthrough for women, and films about them? Not exactly.
First, the great news: Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” is the first time a female-directed action film has ruled the summer. (Vicky Jenson co-directed summer 2001’s top grosser, “Shrek.”) In a male-dominated comic book character universe, Gal Gadot and her D.C. Comics heroine rewrote the rules of what can be a blockbuster summer release.
It’s also the first summer film with a female lead to be #1 since… well, maybe ever. (Jennifer O’Neill had top billing in “The Summer of ’42” in 1971. And last summer’s top movie was “Finding Dory,” which featured a girl fish.)
However, among the top 10 summer releases to date this year, “Wonder Woman” is the only one with a strong female focus. Even if “Girls Trip” joins the ranks, 2017 will still rank below 2016. In addition to “Finding Dory,” last year’s top 10 gave us “Ghostbusters” (#6) and “Bad Moms” (#9) — although “Ghostbusters” came with an asterisk due to its cost, soft international performance, and internet trolls who whined about icky girls.
Internationally, the story isn’t as robust. While Jenkins’ film edged out “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” at home, it ranks only fourth best in offshore results. Japan has still to open, which could boost it considerably — but not enough to overtake “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” ($597 million), “Despicable Me 3” ($519 million), or “Guardians” ($493 million).
“Atomic Blonde” is an American film with European origins: Based on a British graphic novel, it was filmed in Germany. And the prototype of a strong, action-oriented female character has its roots in French director Luc Besson (currently floundering with “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”), who gave us “La Femme Nikita” and its American remake, “Point of No Return.” In 2014, Besson also had a major success with “Lucy” starring Scarlett Johansson.
The budget for “Atomic Blonde” is around $30 million — a sinkhole for summer bombs like “The House,” “Rough Night,” and “Snatched.” However, with its projected domestic opening somewhere close to $20 million, combined with sufficient foreign appeal, it could be a success. If it does work, “Atomic Blonde” would reinforce the value of a woman lead in a genre film.
“Girls Trip” is even less expensive at $19 million, with the potential for a performance similar to “Bad Moms” last year ($113 million domestic gross on a $20 million cost). As an American comedy with an African-American cast, it will make most of its money at home. Still, if strong word of mouth continues, it could reach $100 million and rank high in the list of summer hits above the far more expensive “Alien: Covenant,” “The Mummy,” and “Baywatch.”
Like many of Kathryn Bigelow’s films, “Detroit” focuses on male characters in its story based on the experience of the Detroit riots of 1967. With two Oscars for “The Hurt Locker,” Bigelow remains a leader in breaking down preconceptions of “appropriate” films for women to direct.
“Everything, Everything,” released in May, also was a wide release with a female director (Canadian Stella Maghie). Its domestic gross was $34 million, worldwide $50 million on a $10 million production cost, so it might eventually get into profit.
Daughter-and-mother directors are responsible for two of the biggest-grossing specialized films of the summer. Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled” made over $10 million, while Eleanor Coppola’s “Paris Can Wait” will end up a little under $6 million.
In all, encouraging steps — but they don’t represent a sea change in Hollywood, or in moviemaking. Many more changes will need to take place if, in two or three years (the time it takes to produce a movie), the list will look much different than today.