Domestic box office has taken a dive over the course of the year: Last weekend alone saw a downturn from 2016 by about five percent, so no small change when millions and millions are on the line, and hardly a good sign heading into the key holiday season. However, at least one segment of the market has triumphed mightily — films directed by women.
Both Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” and Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” have busted open long-standing box office records, heralding both the power of female-directed material, but while their successes are mighty, they also highlight how far Hollywood still has to go when it comes to recognizing such films.
Now the number-two domestic earner of the year — Jenkins’ film has so far earned over $412 million at the box office, second only to the juggernaut that is “Beauty and the Beast” — “Wonder Woman” set a new record for a female-directed feature opening. Earning $100M in its first weekend, it surpassed the last film to hold the record, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s 2015 hit “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which opened to just over $85 million.
Last weekend, Gerwig’s first solo directing credit made similar waves, when her “Lady Bird” became the best-ever limited opening for a feature film directed by a woman. The festival favorite opened to $375,612, giving it a $93,903 per theater average (the best of the year so far, too). With those returns, the film takes over the limited release mantel from Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” (using adjusted numbers), which earned $417,150 in its 2012 opening weekend, and even then only boasted a $83,430 per theater average.
In short: both the records for female-directed feature opening and female-directed limited release opening were broken in just the last six months. These new records put both Jenkins and Gerwig — and the box office itself — in new territory.
Such successes, and the obvious desire from audiences to see films directed by and about women, are heartening in an industry that still struggles to even offer its female directors the same opportunities as its male directors. But the breakout power of “Wonder Woman” and “Lady Bird” also further illuminate just how desperately Hollywood needs to alter these practices. For both Jenkins and Gerwig, simply being able to make their films was a struggle, one that Hollywood routinely (and, yes, systematically) heaps upon its women creators, even the ones who are capable of crafting commercial hits.
Jenkins’ journey to delivering a bonafide blockbuster was a long one, despite boasting impressive credentials like “directed Charlize Theron to her first Oscar” and “was already picked to direct a massive comic book movie once before” or even “had the original idea for this Wonder Woman project anyway.” As Jenkins told us in June, it took her nearly a decade to snag the “Wonder Woman” gig.
“I was the person who had been coming and talking to them about it for a long time and talking about doing it in a very specific way,” she told IndieWire. “When the studio finally realized that was the way they wanted to do it, too, I was the obvious choice…Every time there was any idea that Wonder Woman might get made, I was in there talking to them about it, and then it just never culminated.”
Jenkins shouldn’t have had to prove her dedication and prowess over the course of nearly a decade, especially in an industry that so often hands high-profile directing gigs to male directors with just one or two smaller films under their belts (from Colin Trevorrow to Jon Watts, Marc Weeb to Josh Trank), but she did, and was rewarded. She had to fight for it, though.
Similarly, Gerwig also had to work unduly hard to prepare for her solo directorial debut, despite co-writing lauded Noah Baumbach scripts alongside the director, including “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America” and picking up accolades for her acting, including a Golden Globe nod for the former (and a damn fine run at an Oscar with last year’s one-two punch of “20th Century Women” and “Jackie”).
As IndieWire’s Anne Thompson recently noted, Gerwig’s strong work ethic ties into her desire to hone her craft as she moves along. “She went to Barnard, not film school, but she’s been writing and acting in films for 11 years. She learned on the job via multiple collaborators,” Thompson wrote, before ticking through said collaborators with Gerwig herself. This is a serious, dedicated filmmaker who doesn’t skimp on educating herself and bettering her work, and yet it still took her nearly a decade to direct her second film.
Even then, Gerwig opted to work outside the studio system, and indie distributor A24 picked up the film in July of this year, after it had been completed. At every step, she was proving herself. Like Jenkins, the battle has paid off mightily, but it’s not over yet.
Films like “Wonder Woman” and “Lady Bird,” which so obviously appeal to a massive segment of the audience (who, at last count, make up 51% of movie-goers, precisely in line with the gender split), shouldn’t need to jump through hoops to be made. Decades shouldn’t be spent pitching and polishing ideas. Battles shouldn’t need to be waged to create art that so clearly has a place in the world. And now, the big bucks to back it. Money talks. When will Hollywood answer?
Additional reporting by Zack Sharf and Tom Brueggemann.