Box Office: 'Hustlers' Ends Downturn Among 2019 Adult Female-Driven Films

Hustlers-Publicity Still 3-H 2019
2019 STX

The ensemble pic opened over the weekend to a stellar $33.2 million at the U.S. box office, ahead of expectations.

The 2019 drought among adult female-driven films at the U.S. box office got a much-needed drenching over the weekend, thanks to a pic with an all-star cast led by Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu. 

Younger and older women turned out in droves to see writer-director Lorene Scafaria's R-rated Hustlers, which opened nationwide to a better-than-expected $33.2 million to boast the biggest live-action opening of Lopez's 24-year film career, as well as the biggest start ever for Wu and STXfilms. More than two-thirds of the audience was female.

In 2018, a crop of movies relying largely on adult women to boost their fortunes prospered, including the PG-13-rated Crazy Rich Asians (also starring Wu), Ocean's 8 and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again and the R-rated Fifty Shades Freed.

This year has been mostly tough going for movies targeting a female-dominated audience. The August ensemble mob drama The Kitchen, teaming Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss, bombed badly, opening to just $5.5 million in the U.S. and having earned $15 million to date globally.

Failing to break out were What Men Want (starring Taraji P. Henson), Little (starring Issa Rae, Regina Hall and Marsai Martin), Booksmart (led by Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever) and Late Night (pairing Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson), which topped out domestically at $54.6 million, $48.8 million, $22.7 million and $21.4 million, respectively.

"Hustlers is important on many levels and its success will reverse (at least for now) the idea that audiences only want to go the multiplex for a big-budget franchise movie experience and resist female-led films. That’s a good thing," says Paul Dergarabedian of Comscore.

Titles from the Disney empire are the big exception. Live-action movies from Disney Studios proper, such as this year's blockbuster Aladdin, often play heavily to females, in part because they are PG-rated family titles that also appeal to girls.

And while Disney and Marvel Studios' March 2019 blockbuster Captain Marvel, the first female-fronted superhero pic from Marvel, grossed $1.13 billion at the global box office, males still made up the majority of the audience turning out to see the PG-13-rated film, including 55 percent to 58 percent on opening weekend.

The performance of Hustlers is a much-needed win for films starring and directed by women that aren't Hollywood tentpoles.

Hustlers, with a reported net budget of $20 million after tax incentives, stars Wu and Lopez as strippers who lead a band of dancers in a plot to drug and steal from their Wall Street clientele in post-2008 Recession-era New York City. It is based on real-life events chronicled in a 2015 New York magazine story.

Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Lizzo and Cardi B also star in the movie, which garnered strong reviews and loud buzz out of its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival. (STXfilms picked up the project earlier this year when Megan Ellison of Annapurna Pictures put the movie into turnaround.)

"There is a pretty solid track record over many decades of audiences responding to well-made, interesting crime stories and that is the lens through which we viewed this film," says STXfilms chairman Adam Fogelson. "Some people have understandably broken it down to just being a stripper movie, but that's a mistake. With the incredible appeal of the cast, we always believed that at the right price, it was a bet worth making."

Female viewers made up 67 percent of Hustlers' audience, while Caucasians represented 36 percent of ticket buyers, followed by African Americans (26 percent), Hispanics (27 percent) and Asians/other (11 percent), according to PostTrak.

"We've leaned into films featuring and made by women. And there's no question as to the ongoing benefits of having diversity in the cast and crew," says Fogleson. "I'm thrilled this is another moment of which the industry should take note."

STX's previous biggest opening ($23.8 million) belonged to the 2016 female ensemble pic Bad Moms, not adjusted for inflation.

In July 2018, Warner Bros.' star-studded, gender-bending Ocean's 8 opened to $41.6 million domestically, followed a month later by a pleasing $26.5 million bow for the studio's Crazy Rich Asians. The two films went on to gross $297.7 million and $238.5 million, respectively, at the global box office. That same summer, the older-skewing Book Club, from Paramount, earned an impressive $104.4 million domestically after debuting to a modest $13.6 million.

And in 2017, Universal's female ensemble comedy Girls Trip opened to a strong $31.2 million on its way to grossing $115.1 million domestically.

That compares to a modest $18.2 million domestic launch for Paramount's What Men Want in February, while Universal's Little started off with $15.4 million in April. Booksmart's May opening was even more disappointing, opening to just $6.9 million.

There are several high-profile female-fronted films on the fall and year-end release calendar, including Disney's Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, returning Angelina Jolie in the titular role (due out Oct. 18); Sony and director Elizabeth Banks' Charlie's Angels reboot (Nov. 15); New Line's comedy Superintelligence, starring McCarthy and helmed by her husband, Ben Falcone (Dec. 20); and Sony's Little Women adaptation, directed by Greta Gerwig (Dec. 25).

Hustlers is one of the the biggest successes of 2019 to date for an original film, alongside Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and the comedy Good Boys, both of which are also R-rated. 

Says Dergarabedian, "2019 has been a year of box office contradictions and for every original film that failed, there has been another that exceeded expectations."