Writing checks, it is still remarkably easy to slip up and write “2013.” Winter continues its gleefully brutal assault on much of the United States. The new year seems to have hardly begun — and yet, in these mewling kitten days of 2014, Hollywood has already collected $2 billion, Box Office Mojo reports:
As of Sunday, total domestic box office earnings have surpassed $2 billion in 2014. To date, the box office is up around eight percent from last year. If that pattern continues, 2014 would come close to being the first $12 billion year.
When speaking of billions, two is a lot, twice the number of cars in the entire world, and twelve is a-LOT-a-lot, the age of the oldest star clusters. What is behind this tremendous success? Well, a couple of Oscar-season carryovers from 2013, including “Frozen,” which won Best Animated Film and Best Original Song AND is officially the fastest-selling digital release ever; and “American Hustle,” which was all flirting and no followthrough, awards-wise, but still an entertaining entry.
Three 2014 originals of varying quality round out the top five earners of the year so far: “The Lego Movie” (with a score of 82 on Metacritic), “Lone Survivor” (60), and “Ride Along” (41). That is to say, Hollywood had made an ocean liner full of cash in just a few months, primarily from the following: two “prestige” pictures, one about women and one co-starring women; one highly regarded children’s film; one gritty war drama; and one urban buddy cop comedy. Not one is a sequel, or based on a comic book, or a board game, or a ride at Disneyland.
Does it really matter, you may ask. Even if original stories, taking seriously the experiences and points of view of children, women, African-Americans, soldiers, and toys, are making bank, will Hollywood ever change?
The answer is: maybe. Remember, before “Frozen” came out, Disney was so terrified that it ran the most misleading ad campaign possible:
playing up Olaf’s genteel hijinks (and even those of Sven the reindeer) while essentially banishing Elsa, by far the story’s most complex and compelling character, to the margins. Anna fares mildly better, though of the four major personalities singled out, she comes in fourth, ranking behind her two handsome suitors and Olaf. (Why treat your co-lead like she’s Scarlett Johansson in “The Avengers”?) … And no one sings so much as a note.
And then, of course, there is that pesky gender-neutral title, which does for “The Snow Queen” what “Tangled” did for “Rapunzel,” reflecting an overall impulse to suppress anything remotely girly or princessy about this thoroughly girly, princessy movie.
Only once the songs and the sisters, i.e., the elements that most scared Disney, made “Frozen” a hit did Disney acknowledge what its movie was really about. This is a lesson that Hollywood, apparently, needs to relearn and relearn until it sticks: girls do not equal box office death.
In a recent column on the subject of women and minorities in movies, Maureen Dowd quoted Professor Martha Lauzen, Executive Director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, on the subject:
“There’s a great deal of gender inertia going on in Hollywood, both off-screen and on. If you have all white males working behind the scenes in the film industry, you’re going to get a whole lot of white males up on screen.” …
The bluntest remarks came from co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment Amy Pascal in Forbes. She talked about the “paltry” amount women make in Hollywood compared to men, about the “unconscious mountain” of rejection against female directors and how “the whole system is geared for them to fail.”
When Pascal greenlit Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers rom-coms, some male executives sniffed “So what’s next?” Adam Sandler, Will Smith, the “Spider-Man” franchise, “The Social Network,” and this year’s “American Hustle” and “Captain Phillips” impressed the guys in the boardroom. Pascal says, given this year’s crop of female protagonists, she feels more sanguine. “Between ‘Gravity,’ ‘Hunger Games,’ ‘Frozen,’ ‘The Heat,’ and others, that’s $4 billion,” she told me. “That’s a gigantic change.”
Pascal said she learned from Geena Davis, who runs an institute in Los Angeles on gender in media, that “the most important thing is having female protagonists. It doesn’t matter if they’re a villain or a hero. It just matters that their actions have consequences.”
Even white males understand money when it rolls in. Successful franchises like “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games” — both written by and starring women — triggered avalanches of cash:
“Twilight” opened to $69.6 million in November of 2008 and went on to take in $192.7 million domestically and another $199.8 million abroad. Four sequels later, the franchise had brought in more than $3.3 billion worldwide. “The Hunger Games” stunned Hollywood with a record $152.5 million opening in March of 2012, and rolled up $408 million domestically and another $283 million worldwide. Its sequel, “Catching Fire,” opened to a huge $158 million in November and is over $864 million worldwide.
With that in mind, Lionsgate gave the nod to an adaptation of another dystopian YA series by and starring a lady: “Divergent,” which opens this weekend. (Maybe you’ve noticed the marketing campaign, which has sponsored everything short of your dining room furniture.) Its only major competition for your attention is, as it happens, “Muppets Most Wanted,” a children’s comedy starring Tina Fey.
Maybe you were feeling the need for speed this weekend, or planned to try the Turkish baths at “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Don’t let me stop you. But if it feels important that other points of view appear occasionally on your screens, if you value movies besides the ones for and about the boys, maybe consider seeing Shailene Woodley face off against Kate Winslet instead (or Tina Fey face off against Miss Piggy, like I said, win win). Make an investment in a better future for us all.
Ester Bloom lives in Brooklyn.