New Female Spy Films Look to Go Beyond Bond

Thrillers starring top female talent are being eyed as potential franchise starters.

Will Blake Lively, Jennifer Lawrence and Keira Knightley lead a new spy movie boom? Hollywood has mined characters like James Bond, Jack Ryan and Jason Bourne for box-office gold for decades, but after Wonder Woman, studios are seeing ever greater potential in femme-focused action thrillers.

Producers are shopping star-driven spy packages with filmmaker attachments to studios. This summer, while audiences were waiting to see whether Daniel Craig would return for Bond 25 (he'll suit up for his fifth film), the company behind the series was planning its first non-Bond feature.

On Aug. 16, EON Productions and producer Barbara Broccoli set up a package with IM Global at Paramount for an adaptation of Mark Burnell's thriller The Rhythm Section, starring Lively and directed by The Handmaid's Tale helmer Reed Morano. The film is dated for Feb. 22, 2019.

"People would tell me, 'Well, they kind of did this with La Femme Nikita,'" recalls Broccoli, who has been trying to get The Rhythm Section greenlighted for the past seven years. "Which is a movie I love, but it was in 1990, and there were 10 of these a week being released with men in them."

On Oct. 9, K Period, the company behind last year's Oscar winner Manchester by the Sea, set Knightley to play a secret agent in an untitled original script from The Newsroom scribe Camilla Blackett. While a star is not yet attached, Lionsgate made a move to expand its existing neo-noir John Wick franchise with a female-fronted spinoff, acquiring the spec script Ballerina by writer Shay Hatten on July 25.

While those projects are years away from release, Lawrence is the next secret agent to hit the big screen in Chernin Entertainment and Fox's Red Sparrow on March 2. Producer Jenno Topping, head of film and TV at Chernin, is in the process of editing the movie and says that "there is now a new sociopolitical context" to the feature, which sees Lawrence as a woman forced into a brand of espionage that requires her to seduce her targets.

Notes Topping, referencing a post-Harvey Weinstein landscape: "This story is about a woman who is put in an unfortunate situation who turns the tables on everyone. It is weirdly timed with what is happening literally right now in Hollywood."

“They are looking to give these big female stars points, instead of big contracts up front," says Jeff Bock, senior analyst at Exhibitor Relations. "Why wouldn't someone attach a Jennifer Lawrence and have her take a risk on herself?”

While big studio movies in the young adult fantasy genre (Hunger Games and Twilight franchises) have seen global success with female stars, the spy genre has traditionally featured male leads. Heralding a new crop of female-driven spy films was this summer's Atomic Blonde, starring Charlize Theron as an MI6 agent.

"It shouldn't be a genre that is strictly male-based," says Nick Meyer, CEO of Sierra/Affinity, which financed and produced the feature. “The things that were attractive to us were that it was something fresh, with a producer-star that was committed to the idea."

Moreover, the studios stalwart spy franchises have come with increasingly hefty price tags while their popularity has begun to flag, at least in the United States. The latest Mission: Impossible cost $150 million, grossing $195 million domestically, making it the fourth-most commercially successful installment in a franchise of five, when adjusted for inflation. The latest Jason Bourne movie, starring Matt Damon, cost $120 million and pulled in $162 million. That title is also the fourth-most popular out of five installments, the fifth being the Jeremy Renner-starring Bourne. And the latest Bond film, Spectre, cost $245 million to make and grossed $200 million domestically, making it the least commercially popular of the Daniel Craig installments.

Meanwhile, Atomic Blonde grossed $51.5 million ($95.7 million globally) on a $30 million production budget, enough of a profit for Meyer and his team to entertain the idea of a franchise. Prior to Blonde there had been few big spy films with solo female leads. A notable precursor was the 2010 Angelina Jolie-starring feature Salt, which pulled in $118 million, but had a burly budget of $110 million. (Jolie's role was originally written for Cruise.)

"It behooves the studios to follow the path of Atomic Blonde, where you focus on the female hero and then get a really good team to make the film," says Bock, adding, "As long as the grosses are there and they aren’t paying hundreds of millions for a project there is no reason we won’t see more of these movies."

But why are women going undercover on screen now? "Well I thought [The Rhythm Section] would be good to make seven years ago," Broccoli says, laughing. "But I think people are realizing audiences are 50 percent women, or 52 percent in the U.K., and that they want different stories."

A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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