AFM: Why Female-Centric Films Outnumber Male-Skewing Action Movies

Dakota Fanning Getty H 2016
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High-profile projects featuring A-list actresses are replacing AFM's testosterone-fueled pics of old: "The traditional male-oriented action movie is sort of dead now."

The gender gap that used to loom large at AFM — that most macho of film markets — is closing fast as industry economics push buyers and sellers toward more female-focused features.

This year's hot projects feature the likes of Glenn Close, who's starring in HanWay Films' rom-com The Wilde Wedding and Embankment Films' marriage-in-crisis drama The Wife; Suicide Squad star Margot Robbie, whose passion project I, Tonya, about disgraced Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding, is being shopped to international buyers by Sierra/Affinity; and Dakota Fanning, who will play the lead in Cornerstone Films' The Bell Jar, an adaptation of Sylvia Plath's feminist classic that will mark Kirsten Dunst's directing debut.

"It's a real trend," says IM Global CEO Stuart Ford. "The traditional male-oriented feature, the $35 million action movie with Jason Statham, Gerald Butler or Nicolas Cage — that business is sort of dead now because it's a very risky proposition. Distributors are looking for movies that can play equally well male-female or that are female-centric."

The reasons for this shift are more economic than political. Home entertainment revenue, always the driver of action movies and similar male-focused fare, is going or gone in most territories. That means distributors need a movie to deliver at the theater — and that translates getting women into seats.

"[Women] make for strong audiences," says Tim Haslam, co-founder at Embankment, which has The Wife; the Claire Foy-starring romance Breathe; and newly announced Galveston, starring Elle Fanning and directed by Melanie Laurent. "They leave the theaters and get on their phones. They're emotionally engaged. We can do all that without explosions and huge budgets."

The numbers reflect this. Bad Moms, STX Entertainment's women-behaving-badly comedy starring Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell and Kathryn Hahn, was the only independent release to gross more than $100 million at the domestic box office this year. Many of the highest-earning indie films of 2016 — including The Witch, Eye in the Sky, Hello, My Name Is Doris and The Lady in the Van — featured female leads and female-focused stories.

Tara Erer, senior vp sales at FilmNation — which produced the Amy Adams-starrer Arrival and whose AFM slate includes Disobedience, a lesbian love story starring Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz — believes that, despite the increase in production of femme-centric movies, there remains more demand than supply.

"I think the market is underserved, and it is very exciting that more and more movies, from studios and from the independents, are focusing on making movies to serve that market," she says. "Because whether it is a major comedy or a specialty film, you see that it's working."

Noted Ford: "There is a much more obvious marketing hook for female-centric material than for these studio-light-type action films that used to be the locomotives at AFM."

But there is still a ways to go. At a recent Zurich Film Festival panel on the gender gap in the movie business, Laura Lewis of CAA noted that "every time a film aimed at women works, it is portrayed as a fluke" and that it remains a challenge to get women cast in lead roles or to presell female-focused scripts or projects with women directors attached. (It's notable that none of this year's female-centric indie hits was directed by a woman.)

And while a female star occasionally gets a role originally conceived for a man — as Helen Mirren did in Eye in the Sky — the reverse still is the rule. Even with Arrival, studio executives originally pushed for Adams' role to be portrayed by a man.