Mythbusting Female-Led Film Franchises

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Every year since Ripley broke the mold, female-led films have succeeded at the box office, but the perception of them as a risk means there are less of them to enjoy than their male-led counterparts. The problem is not that they are unsuccessful, the problem is that they are not made often enough. This comparison is amplified when discussing the film producer’s holy grail – the movie franchise. While we have endless iterations of the brooding male spy archetype – in Bond, Bourne, Ryan and Hunt – there is only one Salt. Though our multiplexes are crammed with male superheroes – like Iron Man, Superman, Spider-Man, Thor and Captain America – Wonder Woman still only warrants a supporting role in someone else’s film. Two years from now.

Listen to the way the media presents female-generated box office, and you may feel that this cautious approach is understandable. Look at the figures, however, and you find that far from being a ‘game-changer.’ The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is, in fact, on-trend, and reflective of the continued success of female-led movie franchises, which have been steadily increasing in revenue over the years. The only difference is this one is led by Jennifer Lawrence, who guarantees stratospheric magazine sales when she appears on the cover. Resident Evil’s Milla Jovovich doesn’t seem to inspire nearly as many column inches, even though she’s been leading a successful film franchise for over a decade.

A franchise is something that is highly desirable in the movie-making business. It allows for the development of a ‘brand’ based on popular characters. It also reduces risk, as studios are able to work with what are essentially ‘known quantities’ and can make their calculations accordingly. Exhibitors like franchises for the same reason – it almost always guarantees patrons on seats. In purely economic terms, female-led franchises should be even more desirable than those led by men, because of the low budgets increasing the profit margins with each instalment. But to get a real picture of the most successful female-led franchises, we must first establish a little context.

Economies change over time. The budget of a franchise instalment made in the 1970s would not compare to the cost of a franchise instalment made in the 1990s and beyond. Similarly, movie tickets are more expensive in today’s economy than in previous years. If box office receipts are taken as an indicator of interest and popularity, however, we can find a broad picture of how the girls are doing against the boys. Having said that, there is a secondary issue at hand here, which is the budgeting of female-led movies against male and its effect on profitability. So, where films are considered, their approximate budgets must be noted for information purposes. We must also be clear that only those franchises which are clearly led by one gender or another are considered, so franchises such as Star Wars and X-Men are not.

For context, we must look at the men. Think of the most successful male-led franchises, and you’re probably thinking of James Bond. This is understandable – he features in 24 films over 5 decades. However, James Bond actually comes in second place.

The top five most successful film franchises that are clearly male-led currently are:

5) Transformers (2007 – 2011)

  • 3 films (so far) with a combined budget of $545 million
  • International Box Office takings: $2.7 billion

4) Lord Of The Rings (2001 – 2003)

  • 3 films with a combined budget of $281 million
  • International Box Office takings: $2.8 billion

3) Pirates Of The Caribbean (2003 – 2011)

  • 4 films (so far) with a combined budget of $915 million
  • International Box Office takings: $3.7 billion

2) James Bond (1962 – 2012)

  • 24 films (so far) with a combined budget of $1.3 billion
  • International Box Office takings: $6 billion

1) Harry Potter (2001 – 2011)

  • 8 films with a combined budget of $1 billion
  • International Box Office takings: $7.7 billion

Using the same type of information and parameters, any guesses as to the current top five film franchises that are clearly female-led? Surprises are almost guaranteed…

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