The Business of Leading Ladies in Hollywood

3 Dec

By: Lurker

The box office hasn’t always been so nice to leading ladies in movies. In fact, female consumers aren’t always lining up to buy tickets to chick flicks either.  Looking over the numbers there are a few themes that emerge for leading ladies to cash in at the box office.

At risk of starting off with too many clichés, leading ladies are being typecast. Whether that is because it’s a successful formula or playing to what fans will buy I think that could be argued in both directions. While pouring over the numbers women appear to have box office success three ways: being placed in a particular part – typecasting, or landing in a specific story line or becoming part of an ensemble cast. However, there is no argument that Hollywood is a business and businesses must make money. 

In my last article, men seemed to follow the same formula, get linked with a particular franchise and off they went. It seems that path for women is not as clear cut as it is for the men; successful female actors have not taken the same path toward success as the men or experienced similar box office success as the men. A few specific examples to examine are the three series below. I would argue that it’s not a ‘franchise’ like the male lead franchises but movies that had sequels. For example [1]:

Actor Series Budget Box Office ROI
Reese Witherspoon Legally Blonde $43 mil $267 mil 521%
Anne Hathaway Princess Diaries $75 mil $287 mil 283%
Angelina Jolie Lara Croft $184 mil $431 mil 134%

What is interesting is that although these may be considered franchise pictures by Hollywood standards, they effectively typecast each actor. The last article we had some eye-popping numbers for men in franchise films and the examples above are well within the same profit ranges but there are only a handful and none of these are in the top 20.

However, these movies set the stage for these three actors and for the future roles that have all experienced box office success. For example: Walk the Line (Reese), The Devil Wears Prada (Anne), Wanted (Jolie). When these three actors deviated from the roles in which the consumer liked them there was box office failure. (Vanity Fair, A Mighty Heart, Rachel Getting Married). I was unable to find a female actor that has been able to successfully break past being typecast. Consider Sandra Bullock’s successes in romantic comedies like The Proposal or Angela Jolie in male focused genres like Salt, M/M Smith. Even the talented Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts have not been immune. Wouldn’t we consider that unintentional typecasting, or is it really the power of the consumer deciding what they like?

Next up was a review of a few all time favorite movies for female actors in a lead. Another interesting theme emerged in which the story for these female leads includes a love interest that is totally swoon-worthy. What is interesting is this story line has had positive success in many decades. For example, consider Gone with the Wind, Scarlett (Leigh) and her love interest Rhett (Clark Gable), Out of Africa with Karen(Meryl Strep) and Denys(Robert Redford), Titanic with Rose (Winslet) and Jack(DiCaprio), Twilight Bella(Stewart) and Edward(Pattinson). All of these movies have had phenomenal successes over the years and only 1 is a franchise. In fact, GWTW, besides being iconic today, is still a lifetime box office winner $390 million with ROI of 9913%! 1This story line idea with a love affair set amongst an extraordinary backdrop in film is a box office success by any measurement. Again consider the recent movie Atonement with the same story arc made $129 mil with ROI roughly 331%. What is interesting though is that many of these films the men became the draw for the female fans more so than the female lead. Consider the more recent Pattinson and DiCapiro successes from Twilight and Titanic. Although the story line is told from the female lead’s perspective, the consumer seemed to marginalize the female lead in favor of the love interest.

What else emerged was the concept of an ensemble cast, where the female lead is not the ‘main draw’ but an integral part of the movie. This is representative of the dominate franchises in the top 20. Gwyneth Paltrow (IronMan) and Keira Knightly(Pirates) and Cameron Diaz (Shrek) are all in male focused movies and their character is essential to the story.

For me the numbers reveal a stark contrast with the trajectory for male actors to reach box office success than women. Some of the women mentioned in this article are millionaires just like the men and have been very successful. They just took a different path to get there. At the end of the day it’s still about finding the right formula and drawing consumers to the product. How you package it seems to be a huge difference.

What do you think?

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3 Responses to “The Business of Leading Ladies in Hollywood”

  1. Open Book December 3, 2010 at 5:34 PM #


    This is a great article. I was wondering about Bridget Jones with Renee Z. I thought this franchise did really well.No! I guess it all depends on the genre and audiences familiarity and expectations. In other words the Dumb Blonde, formulaic, romantic comedy genre is familiar to audiences and perhaps why Legally Blonde did so well as a franchise.

    • lurkerm3 December 3, 2010 at 7:38 PM #

      That’s something else to consider yes!
      Bridget Jones did well at the BO. Good point!
      In fact, it bested Lara Croft – 627% ROI with 2 movies grossing $ 545 mil.
      I think what i noticed is that the BIG franchises are $1 bill+ in gross box office.

    • FilmFan2000 December 4, 2010 at 3:41 PM #

      This is a great site and topic. Film being my favorite topic, I think roles for women will improve once women start showing Hollywood what they are willing to support, like Twilight. This franchise has proven women like romantic fantasy films a lot. I also think women are becoming bigger fans of action films. I guess it all depends on what audiences will pay for and what Hollywood is willing to take a risk on. Anyway, great topic will visit again.

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