Every other day it seems like there’s a depressing alert in our inbox about how the relationship between women and the film industry is ridiculously problematic. And one of the most depressing aspects about this is how year after year nothing seems to change. Or if it does, the step ahead seems minuscule and not exactly worth celebrating (instead of zero films in the studio top 20 directed by women, there was one!).
Unfortunately in that regard, we come baring bad news. Except this time, it’s actually a bit unexpected. One of the few hopeful trends in the past few years — female representation at the indie box office — seems to be taking a step backwards in 2014.
The four highest grossing specialty films so far in 2014 are all male-directed films with male protagonists: “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Chef,” “Boyhood” and “A Most Wanted Man.” In fact, only one film in the top 10 specialty films so far this year has a sole female lead, and it’s also the only one directed by a woman: “Belle.” That film has grossed $10.7 million, and is the currently the 7th highest grossing indie of 2014. “Begin Again” and “Magic in the Moonlight” are also in said top 10, and each have female co-leads. That makes 30% of the list with an actress receiving either sole or shared top billing.
This might all sound sadly expected, but it’s actually pretty rare. While it’s more often than not that the annual studio box office top 10 offers nothing by the way of female-led films, the last few years has seen very much the opposite when it comes to indies.
During the same period last year, Cate Blanchett-led “Blue Jasmine” was overwhelmingly the #1 grossing specialty film so far, with “Quartet,” “Spring Breakers,” “The Bling Ring,” “Before Midnight” and “The Spectacular Now” all in the top 10. That made for 60% of that list featuring a female lead, either by herself or shared.
It was the same story in 2012. Between January and September 17 of that year, female-led “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” was the #1 indie, while “Moonrise Kingdom,” “To Rome With Love,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Salmon Fishing In The Yemen” and “Friends With Kids” all in the top 10. Same deal: 60 percent.
So why is 2014 batting half those numbers? Well, it simply seems that there’s less female-led indies to choose from this year. If you expand the search to the top twenty-five grossing indie films of 2014, there’s still only a total of six female-led examples (“Ida,” “Obvious Child” and “Under The Skin” being the other three — though you could arguably include “What If” as a co-lead). That’s 24%. And were also hard pressed to find that many indies with actresses leading their front that really bombed, save “Life After Beth” (with Aubrey Plaza co-leading) and “Walk of Shame” (with Elizabeth Banks in lead). Most of the oft-discussed disappointments in the specialty market so far — “Wish I Was Here,” “Enemy,” “Dom Hemingway” — star men.
There’s still time to turn things around. Female co-led films “The Skeleton Twins,” “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” and “My Old Lady” all opened to nice numbers last weekend, and perhaps they’ll expand into “Belle”-sized hits. And Mia Wasikowska-led “Tracks” opens today, leading into a few more months of potential (see “Camp X-Ray,” “White Bird in a Blizzard,” “Wild,” “The Good Lie”). But for every one of those options, there seems like there’s about four or five films with male leads. So while we certainly encourage you to see any of those, we also wouldn’t hold our breath for the kind of late breaking, female-starring indie hits that there were last year — “August: Osage County,” “Philomena” and “Enough Said” in particular.
The strange — and in a certain sense, hopeful — twist to all of this is that it’s actually been an unusually good year for the studios when it comes to the same trend. Of the 22 films that have so far grossed $100 million, “Maleficent,” “Divergent,” “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Lucy” all have female leads. That’s 18%. Of course, not a number exactly worth celebrating. But it’s sure worth noting that for once there doesn’t seem like too much of a difference between Hollywood-produced hits and their indie counterparts when it comes to representing lead female characters. We actually hope 2015 continues this trend — except that both percentages are a whole lot close to the 60% indie films have been offering in the past few years.