film reporter

Female action movies need hero of their own

When Robert Rodriguez signed on last week to direct Universal's "Barbarella," it marked a rare instance of a female-led action film getting off the ground.

Rodriguez is dipping his laser gun into a subgenre where Hollywood has been traditionally gun-shy. Recent history has left a graveyard of tombstones reading such names as "Elektra," "Catwoman" and "Aeon Flux," while mausoleums house "Tank Girl" and "Barb Wire." There are exceptions, of course, such as the "Tomb Raider" and "Underworld" movies, but their sequels failed to capitalize on any goodwill created by the first movies.

One manager says it doesn't take X-ray vision to see studio sexism as part of the trouble. Female-oriented action movies, he reasons, take a hit when one fails, whereas a male-oriented action movie that misfires bounces off a studio's back like a bullet off Superman.

"The studio translates those failures into, 'It doesn't matter if those were bad movies, female-led superhero movies don't work," says one manager, who has clients wanting to write those movies but says "studios won't touch them with a 10-foot pole."

But television is another story.

On the small screen, female-starring genre stories become buzzworthy cult hits, such as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Alias" and "Veronica Mars." The fall season will see a new crop of heroes in the form of a new "Bionic Woman" on NBC and Fox's "The Sarah Connor Chronicles," a spinoff of the "Terminator" movie series.

"Going back to 'Police Woman' in 1974, it's been far more accepted for a woman to carry a show than it was for a woman to carry a movie," says DC Comics senior vp Gregory Noveck, who is developing titles for both the big and small screen.

Part of the problem is that most female actors dip one foot into the action genre and then move on, especially after a flop, as Jennifer Garner did post-"Elektra." But male actors keep coming back again and again.

The other problem, according to many writers and executives, is that there hasn't been that knockout feature script starring a female action hero. If "Buffy" creator Joss Whedon is let go for not being able to nail a "Wonder Woman" script, what hope do lesser mortals have?

The issue is the writing, says David Eick, a writer-executive producer on "Battlestar Galactica" and also a showrunner on "Bionic Woman." Feature film screenwriters tend to allow gender to cloud character and plot development, he says, whereas TV avoids that trap.

"The best female action stories in my opinion are the ones in which the role isn't written for a girl, it's written for a hero," says Eick, adding that heroes shouldn't be written any different whether male or female. "In the television medium, the best female action characters are written as heroes first, and female second."

Noveck isn't ready to give up on what he sees as a genre still in its infancy. To him, studios are willing to put up with such failures as "Hulk" and "Remo Williams" to find such genre-defining hits as "Die Hard" and "Superman," whereas female action film aren't given enough chances.

Says Noveck, "When you only take four or five shots, you better take a whole bunch more shots before you write off a whole genre."
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