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LAS VEGAS – The statistics are sobering: For every female lead in a movie, there are three male leads. And in crowd scenes, only 17 percent of the people are women and girls. Put another way, if the number of female roles increases at the current rate, it will take 700 years to reach parity with males.
“It’s insanity. It seems like you have to go out of your way to leave that many women out,” Geena Davis said during a panel at CinemaCon on women and the box office moderated by The Hollywood Reporter editorial director Janice Min. Davis runs the Geena Davis Institute of Gender and Media, founded in 2004 to change female portrayals and gender stereotypes.
Panelists Paul Feig, director of The Heat and Bridesmaids, Hunger Games producer Nina Jacobson and Regal Entertainment CEO Amy Miles all agreed with Davis that fear drives poor decision-making on the part of Hollywood studios when it comes to straying from the norm and featuring more female protagonists. Fox Animation Studios president Vanessa Morrison, also a panelist, said she is more insulated from the problem because she’s in animation.
The lively and frank discussion, falling on the last day of CinemaCon, prompted a rare response afterward from National Association of Theatre Owners president John Fithian. And AMC Entertainment chairman and CEO Gerry Lopez, who introduced the event, said such a discussion was long overdue.
“This panel provided some of the most incisive and perceptive analysis of our business that I have ever heard. We want to offer a diversity of choice to our customers, and to do that our industry needs to be as diverse as our customers. Women are the majority of our population — it should be easy to start there,” Fithian said.
Feig said he always has tried to promote strong female characters but was told again and again that movies with women wouldn’t work. “I was always shut down so quickly. You start to weirdly accept it,” he said.
Min recalled several headlines in the weeks leading up to the release of Bridesmaids in 2011 suggesting that the R-rated female comedy could never work.
“I was terrified, thinking that if I screw this up, no women are ever going to star in movies again,” Feig said.
Bridesmaids, of course, turned into a box-office hit, grossing $288.4 million worldwide for Universal. The next test for Feig is The Heat, starring Sandra Bullock and reuniting Feig with his Bridesmaids star Melissa McCarthy. Fox opens the buddy-cop comedy June 28.
Yet even with the success of Bridesmaids, Twilight and the Hunger Games — two female-fueled franchises — most Hollywood films still are geared to males, the panelists suggested. Indeed, the vast majority of the 2013 summer films promoted by studios this week at CinemaCon were heavy on action and violence.
Miles — the only female to head a major theater circuit — said it’s disheartening to note that women make 70 percent to 80 percent of all purchases, yet females only make up roughly 50 percent of those going to the movies. She questioned how much money Hollywood is leaving on the table by not turning out more films that appeal to women.
Miles also noted that when she receives toys and other movie swag from studios, she rarely has anything to take home to her small niece. Rather, it all goes to her nephew. “He’s much more excited than she is about the movies. Yet you want to build an affinity for moviegoing from a young age,” she said.
“We just have to look at the history of Hollywood and how women have been left out to realize it is a decades-long trend,” said Davis, noting that there were many more protagonists in the early days of Hollywood than there are now. In 1920, for instance, 57 percent of the lead stars were women.
Jacobson, formerly president of Disney’s film studio, said franchise fever largely has resulted in studios chasing after all four quadrants of the audience versus putting out a diverse slate.
“How many weekends of the year are there when I wish there was something to see with my kids,” she said. “The remedy for a lot of the issues that afflict female representation in movies is also the same remedy for the marketplace.”
Morrison said she’s been lucky in that the head of every production unit within Fox — Fox 2000 president Elizabeth Gabler, Fox Searchlight co-president Nancy Utley and Fox president of production Emma Watts — means there are more female voices making key decisions.
In terms of her own slate, Fox Animation’s 2013 summer tentpole Epic features a female protagonist, much as Disney’s Oscar-winning Brave did.
“Even in Ice Age, there’s no stronger female voice than Queen Latifah‘s character Ellie,” Morrison said.
Media also contributes to the problem, according to the panelists. Feig said that many times, female characters are the stereotypical wife who nags or the girlfriend who bugs.
The one topic most panelists didn’t want to address, however, was the upcoming film adaptation of the female-fueled erotic literary sensation Fifty Shades of Grey.
When Min asked whether the upcoming movie would be the best or worst thing to happen to women in film, the panelists giggled but remained largely silent. Davis responded by saying she was “speechless.” Feig begged off by saying he didn’t read it (he did joke later that would direct it), while Morrison skirted the by saying she was in animation. Miles shrugged with a smile and shook her head playfully to indicate she wouldn’t be responding.
Jacobson, the only one to respond, noted, “Female desire is a very complex subject.”
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