Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Shaunna Murphy
December 20, 2016 2:24 pm

Around this time last year, a whole lot of us were really freaking excited to see Daisy Ridley lead Star Wars: The Force Awakens into serious box office glory. Not only because the movie is fantastic, but because a woman protagonist successfully leading a Star Wars film felt groundbreaking — and this felt like a sign of great things to come for female-dominated blockbusters.

However, 2016 hasn’t exactly brought with it a plethora of lady badasses on the big screen. There was Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman in Batman v Superman, Black Widow and Scarlet Witch in Captain America: Civil War, and a few female mutants in X-Men: Apocalypse, but virtually all of those films — and so, so many more — all had male actors on the top of the call sheet.

This is why Rogue One: A Star Wars Story feels so important.

Over its first weekend, Rogue One enjoyed the 12th largest debut in movie history, raking in $155 million domestically and $290.5 million globally — not nearly enough to beat The Force Awakens’ $247.96 million debut, but it was never actually intended to. Rogue One was a bit of a science experiment, as it marked the first time in franchise history that a Star Wars film didn’t feature a familiar character from the original trilogy as the lead (even though the likes of Darth Vader, Grand Moff Tarkin, Mon Mothra, and Bali Organa all had supporting roles).

It also, of course, was the first Star Wars film to definitively star a woman (although Force Awakens arguably is centered around Rey, played by Daisy Ridley).

Basically, this means that the fact that Rogue One made so much money is really, really important — because when a woman leads a film that is considered a gamble for a major studio, its financial failure will often be blamed on said woman’s gender over, say, a bad script or poor marketing. Call it Ghostbusters syndrome, if you will.

"Studios are paying close attention to how well female-led movies are doing, and using that to extrapolate future success," Cat Burhenne, co-founder of the streaming app ReelGood, told HelloGiggles over email. "When a male-led movie crashes, though, no one attributes it to the fact that the movie had a male lead."

In other words, Hollywood’s notoriously awful gender politics are the reason why you haven’t heard a thing about, say, Collateral Beauty‘s abysmal $7 million debut, meaning men can’t successfully lead weepy dramas anymore, while the failure of Ghostbusters opened up yet another tiring conversation about whether or not women can be funny — only a few years after the people behind it made Bridesmaids, the movie that seemingly finally proved to the men running studios that we are.

So with the Bridesmaids example in mind, shouldn’t one assume that the recent success of films like Rogue One, The Force Awakens, and The Hunger Games means Marvel, DC, the Harry Potter-verse, and so on and so forth will be champing at the bit for a movie with a woman at the top of the marquee? Is Hollywood finally ready to hand the reigns of its biggest action franchises over to women?

According to box office experts, yes and no. Because while studios are finally catching on to the fact that women (and people of color) want to pay their dollars to see themselves onscreen, due to the financials behind getting a film made, they also move slower than that sloth in Zootopia laughing at a joke.

"Studios are wising up to the fact that both men and women will turn out to see female driven movies, and female driven action movies, too," Barna Donovan, professor of film and mass media at Saint Peter's University, told HelloGiggles over the phone. "Women are demanding to see themselves in positive roles; in powerful roles -- where they’re not just a sidekick or a girlfriend, they’re in charge, and they’re the hero. I think studios are opening their eyes to that, and will be greenlighting more films like this in the future."

Even though it may not seem like it — because we’re still so, so far behind — Donovan is right. According to Forbes’ research, 2016 actually was a major improvement over 2015 when it comes to women leading films, both major studio franchises and smaller indie dramas. 2016 was also the year that Brie Larson was cast as Captain Marvel (she’ll be the first woman to lead a film in the MCU, after a whopping 14 came out with a man at the helm), and the year that so many people fell in love with Harley Quinn that Warner Bros. greenlit the all-female Gotham City Sirens, despite terrible reviews for the decidedly more masculine Suicide Squad.

Even less behemoth projects, like the upcoming all-female Oceans 8, offer hope that studios are finally putting their faith in women-dominated projects.

“In the next 5-10 years, movie goers can expect a big shift, with more Hollywood studios turning to data before deciding what movies to make,” Burhenne explained, referring to the fact that studios can use data from social media (and possibly in the future, given the right deals, streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime) to prove to film investors that viewers are interested in diversity.

"Hollywood is on board, they want to make more of these films," Donovan said. "Audiences, especially young audiences -- the audiences that Hollywood is always trying to go after first and foremost — have no problem seeing empowered female characters leading an action movie."

However awesome this news is, we still have a lot of work to do. Because even when women do lead an action film, some very sobering statistics prove that their male costars will be given much more dialogue — for example, even in Force Awakens, 78% of the dialogue was spoken by men, with Finn having a whole lot more to say than Rey. Also in the Star Wars-verse — where a very positive overall diversity push has clearly been made — Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy recently came under fire for saying women directors did not have the blockbuster experience necessary to direct a film in the franchise.

So, yeah — no one is denying that film has a long way to go to even catch up to television when it comes to more roles for badass women, both in front of and behind the camera. Still, data experts like Burhenne are refreshingly convinced that, within the next decade, we won’t be classifying films like Rogue One as “female-driven” at all — because seeing women like Jones in the pilot seat will be the rule, not the exception.

“Once female-led movies because more of the norm, their success and failure will not be ascribed so much to gender of the protagonist,” she concluded.

It’s about freaking time.

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