In the peak of the summer movie season, a film opening in second place with a $39 million weekend isn’t really news. But when it’s a rare female-targeted blockbuster, like the buddy-cop comedy The Heat, starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy—and it’s followed by The Lone Ranger, which bombed at $29 million—Hollywood gets pretty excited. “Funny ladies can open movies!” tweeted Heat director Paul Feig on June 30. “Got it, Movies?”
A sequel to The Heat was announced even before the film opened, when it was clear the movie was tracking for a big release. Feig has also said he’s looking for a star for his “female James Bond” comedy Susan Cooper and has teamed up with Chernin Entertainment to create a mother-daughter comedy. Meanwhile, McCarthy, who’s becoming one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars—Identity Thief, which she starred in earlier this year, made more than $134 million domestically—has wrapped shooting the road-trip comedy Tammy, which she co-wrote with her husband, Ben Falcone.
A similar round of speculating accompanied 2011’s Bridesmaids, also directed by Feig and co-starring McCarthy, who was nominated for an Oscar for her role as the most profane bridesmaid. But that flurry saw few results. Bridesmaids “proved that there was a female market,” producer Lynda Obst (Flashdance, Sleepless in Seattle) told the Daily Beast on June 27. “Like 50,000 scripts turned up on managers’ desks … but no one was willing to take a shot on them.” Geena Davis, who founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, spoke to NPR about the topic last month: “Every time there’s a movie starring women, the media is very excited to say, ‘Well, this changes everything.’ That’s what happened with Thelma & Louise … and nothing changed.”
Female viewers make up 51 percent of the U.S. moviegoing audience, according to a Motion Picture Association of America study from 2011. Girls are the target demographic of franchises such as The Hunger Games and the Twilight series. Women power the success of horror films such as Mama (opening weekend audience: 61 percent female) and The Purge (56 percent), as well as dramas such as The Great Gatsby (59 percent). They like action films, too, as Fast & Furious 6 and Man of Steel, both with female audiences just under 50 percent, demonstrated.
Yet women make up only about 9 percent of directors, 15 percent of writers, and 25 percent of producers in Hollywood, and that reality is reflected on-screen. In May the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism released its annual survey of how women characters were represented in the 100 top-grossing films; the percentage of female characters declined to 28.4 percent in 2012, a five-year low. “There is a perception that movies that pull male sell. Given that females go to the movies as much as males, the lack of change is likely due to entrenched ways of thinking and doing business that perpetuate the status quo,” study author Stacy Smith told the Los Angeles Times.
Some are undeterred. “I do think there’s a bit of a shift starting to happen,” says writer-director-producer Kat Coiro, director of 2011’s L!fe Happens, starring Krysten Ritter and Kate Bosworth. In 2012, the Sundance Institute and Women in Film Los Angeles created a mentorship program for women directors and producers. And a new generation of filmmakers such as Lena Dunham (Tiny Furniture, Girls) and Leslye Headland (Bachelorette) has risen through the indie ranks. “When I first started, I was shocked at how few female writer-directors there were,” Coiro says. “But it seems every year, there are more and more—and you’ll see more female-driven films being made as a result.” Got it, Movies?