The Wonder Woman effect: Two AU film professors weigh in
“Wonder Woman” was a smash hit at the box office, but is that enough to permanently change things for women in Hollywood?
The film made $103.1 million in its U.S. opening weekend and has since grossed over $800 million globally, as of October 2017. It was not only a financial success, but a critical one as well. The Rotten Tomatoes audience score clocked in at 89 percent and Metacritic lists a score of 76, with “generally favorable” reviews.
This is a big deal, as Hollywood is famously male-centric with a long history of gender discrimination. According to a report from San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, women directed only 7 percent of the top 250 movies in 2016, down from 9 percent in 2015. The Center has been studying this topic since 1998, when women still only made up about 9 percent of directors.
So, why is it so hard for female-driven films to get made? And will the enormous success of “Wonder Woman” help more female directors land major movies? The Eagle spoke to several American University professors for their take on these questions.
Hedging their bets
Caty Borum Chattoo is the director of the Center for Media & Social Impact at American University. Before coming to AU, Borum Chattoo worked in Los Angeles for years and is well-versed in entertainment industry marketing.
“There’s a long-standing marketing myth in Hollywood that films that are directed by women will be seen only by women,” she said.
The myth also holds that men will go see movies directed by men, and they’ll bring along their girlfriends.
Borum Chattoo said that this myth is why we see movies like “Spiderman” and “Superman” released in the summer, with “the idea being that we need young men to buy into a movie in order for it to be responsive to the marketplace.”
Randall Blair, associate professor of film, television and video production at American University, said that a big-name male actor who has never directed before in his life would get an opportunity to direct much faster than a woman who has already directed a handful of successful low-budget films.
“[Hollywood is] doing everything they can to hedge their bet. And their bet’s huge,” Blair said. If a big-name actor is starring in a film he directed, that’s a built-in promotional platform that will, if nothing else, open the film for the weekend.”
The opening weekend at the box office is critical. Studios predict how well a film will do by crunching the opening weekend box office receipts. If the reception is poor, studios will most likely pull the movie from theaters.
Hollywood is, of course, a for-profit business. Money talks. If studios think movies directed by men will draw larger audiences, they’ll continue to make movies directed by men. And if a movie directed by a woman does well, perhaps that will lead to more opportunities.
“I think that ‘Wonder Woman’ is an excellent example of a real watershed moment,” Borum Chattoo said. “We’ve known for a long time that women can direct all different types of films, not just because they’re women but because they’re people. So I think we will see more action films directed by women.”
Kind of the most powerful superhero
Hollywood blockbusters, especially superhero movies, are typically marketed to young men with disposable income who will go see a movie multiple times.
“The male 18-34 demographic is the sweet spot for most of those things,” Blair said.
Yet this superhero film not only attracted men and women, but also young girls. Director Patty Jenkins said in a “Variety” video that she’s excited to think “Wonder Woman” may inspire young women.
“Watching this generation not only embrace a character I love but embrace the message she stands for, into their soul, is so incredible,” Jenkins said in the video.
Borum Chattoo agreed with this sentiment, and said her nine-year-old daughter saw her first superhero movie because of Wonder Woman. But, perhaps more importantly, her son saw the movie, too. His response to the film was that “Wonder Woman is kind of the most powerful superhero.”
Borum Chattoo said the film is universally loved, and “it’s equally important that boys get that message.”
Boys seem to be getting the message. Jenkins received a list from her producer in June, and shared it on Twitter. It was written by a kindergarten teacher, cataloguing her students’ reactions to “Wonder Woman.” Among the many positive reactions, one boy who had previously been obsessed with Iron Man asked his parents for a Wonder Woman lunchbox.
When men direct and create female characters, they’re often one-dimensional. Borum Chattoo said that Wonder Woman is a fully-realized character who is not only beautiful, but smart and powerful. That’s an important message for little girls.
“I think we still socialize girls to think, ‘you can be the smart one but not the cute one’ or ‘you can be the social one’ or whatever and that’s just not how women exist in the world,” said Borum Chattoo. “Why is that a binary we need to fall into?”
The future for women in film
Another female film director, Sam Taylor-Johnson, is hopeful that the success of “Wonder Woman” will boost other female film careers.
“We are making progress, but we still have to kick down the doors to get our voices heard and still have to keep fighting for things. With ‘Wonder Woman’ and the other great films directed by women, it’s a start, and I’m hoping it will get a little bit better,” Taylor-Johnson told Vanity Fair.
Blair said that, while challenging, there are ways women can help other women in film.
“The best thing that people like Patty and others can do is keep trying to leverage their success and hopefully bring others along,” Blair said. He mentioned other directors and showrunners, such as Shonda Rhimes, that continue to do that and work with the same crew on various projects.
As mentioned previously, money talks. The 2016 MPAA Theatrical Market Statistics report showed that “three of the top five grossing films in 2016 attracted majority female audiences.” If that trend continues, perhaps Hollywood will take note and allow more female directors the chance to direct big budget features.
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