For decades, popcorn films have usually been reserved for actors with XY chromosomes, but "Maleficent," "Edge of Tomorrow" and "The Fault in Our Stars" are upending tradition and exposing cracks in a resilient glass ceiling.
Consider the evidence:
Disney is betting on Jolie's global appeal to help sell the hugely expensive, $175 million-budgeted "Maleficent." The actress, bedecked in sinister horns, lips curled into a menacing smile, dominates the movie's print and television advertising. Clearly the studio thinks that Jolie in this meaty role is almost as big a draw as, say, Johnny Depp hamming it up as Captain Jack Sparrow. The only other character to warrant extensive screen time in trailers is Elle Fanning, an emerging star who plays the princess fated to have a nasty encounter with a spindle.
For its part, Disney stresses that the picture's allure isn't limited to one gender, even as it acknowledges that it will play well with girls.
"Relative to the competition in the marketplace that is more male-oriented, a film with a female lead may be more of a tug on female audiences and will end up being a relief, if you will, from 'X-Men' and 'Godzilla,'" Dave Hollis, Walt Disney Studios' executive vice president of theatrical distribution, said. "At the same time there's a universalism in the story. Yes, it's Angelina Jolie, but she's also one of the few worldwide movie stars alive in the universe. It's more about it being Angelina as opposed to it having a female lead."
"Edge of Tomorrow" may be banking on Tom Cruise's box office heft to sell tickets, but the science-fiction film provides Blunt with an opportunity to reinvent herself as an action heroine. In it, Cruise plays against type as a cowardly public relations officer forced into battle, and it is Blunt who must teach him how to fight and control his fear.
It's no accident that "Edge of Tomorrow" arrives courtesy of Doug Liman, who also blessed the world with the sight of Jolie turning kitchen cutlery and other household items into lethal weapons in "Mr. and Mrs. Smith."
"I have put strong female characters in all my films, but the key is you actually have to have a strong story," Liman said at the New York City premiere of "Edge of Tomorrow." "[Blunt] has a really great story in this film. It's not that she's just tough. She's got the pressure of the world's counting on her to deliver a victory."
Then there's "The Fault in Our Stars," which on paper seems the most conventional of the three -- one veteran marketing executive privately quipped, "it lives, breaths, and smells like a Nicholas Sparks novel but for a younger audience." True enough, its story of two teenage lovers who meet in a cancer patients' support group mirrors "Love Story" and other tear-jerkers.
Yet audiences seem to be responding to the realism of the story, with social media buzz building in advance of the film's debut next week. This enthusiasm comes despite the fact that the filmmakers do not shy away from showing Woodley's cancer-stricken patient with her oxygen nose cannula in posters and other promotional materials.
"Teenagers respond to authenticity," Wyck Godfrey, producer of "The Fault in Our Stars" and the "Twilight" franchise, said. "They don't respond to Hollywood's bullshit version of them. They respect that this movie doesn't pander to them. We consciously didn't shy away from showing anything."
When it comes to women, Godfrey said fantasy films may be paving the way for more assertive representations.
"There are more and more strong teenage girl protagonists in action and fantasy," he said. "Look at Tris in 'Divergent' or Katniss in 'Hunger Games.' People are flocking to these stories because they have strong female characters who face the world with no gender awareness. They're not tough for girls. They're just tough."
The trio of arresting leading performances comes after an uneven few weeks for female actresses. Though Rose Byrne proved she could mine gross-out humor as nimbly as Seth Rogen in "Neighbors" and Jennifer Lawrence played an integral part in the success of "X-Men: Days of Future Past," films like "Godzilla" either quickly dispatched female characters (nice knowing you, Juliette Binoche!) or relegated them to the sidelines, with Sally Hawkins and Elizabeth Olsen providing master classes in looking pensive.
At least those actresses made it into the finished film. Despite the success of "The Hunger Games" and "Twilight," both of which feature women in prominent roles, female representation in blockbuster films has been anemic. Of the top 100 grossing films of 2013, females comprised 15% of protagonists, 29% of major characters, and 30% of all speaking characters, according to findings by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.
The reasons aren't commercial.
"I have never seen a good or valid study that has found that the sex of the protagonist determines box office grosses," said Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. "Rather, a number of studies have found that films with larger budgets enjoy larger box office grosses. The size of the budget, not the sex of the protagonist, helps to determines grosses."
Another puzzling aspect of the gender gap is that women comprise a larger slice of the ticket-buying population than men, according to a recent survey by the Motion Picture Association of America. Granted, it's one that's declined on a per capita basis from 4.8 in 2009 to 3.9 last year; perhaps it's time to create more appetizing options for this under-nourished sector of the movie-going public?
Beyond this recent flurry of gender gains, there are signals that this summer will be better than last, when "The Heat" and "The Conjuring" were among the few films sporting strong female roles. The upcoming comedy "Tammy" was co-written by and stars Melissa McCarthy, who used her "Bridesmaids" clout to get the passion project made. Likewise, R-rated comedy "Sex Tape" features Cameron Diaz yukking it up alongside Jason Segel, proving that beautiful women not named Kim Kardashian can get tripped up while chronicling coitus.
In a different register, "Lucy" features Scarlett Johansson as a drug mule turned avenging angel -- something of a male fantasy perhaps, but at least it's one in which the woman is empowered.
When the victim becomes the aggressor, it signals a few barriers are collapsing.
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