Women once again proved their might at the North American box office this weekend, delivering a big win for Lucy, the Scarlett Johansson action movie that easily crushed Dwayne Johnson‘s Hercules, director Brett Ratner’s muscle-bound take on the classic Greek hero.
The R-rated Lucy debuted to $44 million in North America, far more than expected and the best showing ever for a female action title not based on a young adult book (i.e., The Hunger Games) or a video game (Tomb Raider). Hercules, conversely, opened to $29 million.
The sword-and-sandal genre is challenged, with recent efforts Pompei and The Legend of Hercules failing to connect with broad audiences. But Johnson is considered one of the world’s biggest action stars, so Hercules was expected to do more business than Lucy. Its failure to do so is another example illustrating an alarming trend at the box office: many men are staying away from the U.S. multiplex this summer.
As male-fueled tentpoles like Transformers: Age of Extinction have failed to reach the same heights as in previous summers (though Transformers is performing well overseas), females have powered some of the summer’s biggest hits — think Maleficent ($230 million domestic) and The Fault in Our Stars ($122 million domestic on a $12 million production budget). Now, their power has extended to the R-rated action genre, territory historically dominated by male stars.
Exit polling showed that women and older teen girls made up a full 50 percent of Lucy‘s audience. And since females often call the shots in deciding which movie to go to with their husbands or boyfriends, many in Lucy‘s audience were couples. On the contrary, men and boys made up the majority of Hercules‘ audience, at 58 percent.
Hollywood’s take at the U.S. box office has been down as much as 20 percent this summer, and several major films that skewed male ended up disappointing, such as The Amazing Spider-Man. In general terms, those movies that bet on women have fared better.
French director-writer Luc Besson has never shied away from building action movies around strong women, including La Femme Nikita (which led to the American remake Point of No Return) and Colombiana, but Lucy marks his best opening yet. And it was four times that of Colombiana, which launched to $10.4 million in August 2011 and starred Zoe Saldana (it was beaten by Rise of the Planet of the Apes in that film’s fifth weekend).
Lucy‘s dominance points to changing times, as younger men often care more about video games than movies. “I think it says that more female action stars are called for,” notes Universal domestic distribution chief Nikki Rocco. “And I think you need a female lead for women to come. It’s time to broaden the genre.”
Rocco notes that females are usually paired with men in action movies, such as in Wanted or Mr. & Mrs. Smith, both starring Angelina Jolie. She’s been one of the few actresses to brave action, and was the solo lead in Salt and both Tomb Raider movies. Another is Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games franchise or Sandra Bullock in the action space epic Gravity.
Besson’s EuropaCorp made Lucy for $40 million, with Universal handling distribution and marketing. In selling the film, the studio showcased Johansson’s role as the Black Widow in Marvel’s superhero universe, including The Avengers, Iron Man and Captain America movies.
Lucy debuted just as Hollywood studios showcased their upcoming slates at Comic-Con, a bastion for fanboys, once the all-hallowed moviegoing demo. Yet one of the reveals drawing the biggest interest was a first look of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, who will appear in Warner Bros.’ Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice opposite Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill.
Agreeing with Rocco that Hollywood needs to acknowledge the power of females at the box office, one studio exec notes, “Lucy once again shows that women can really rule the big screen.”