Hollywood’s conventional “wisdom” proven wrong by actual data

Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight news site launch has had a bit of a rough start, but an article published on 1 April showed the team doing what it does best: applying statistical analysis to the real world and coming up with facts rather than opinions.

The opinion in Hollywood that films with female leads or multiple prominent female characters don’t make money is entrenched and accepted as fact, repeated ad nauseam to anyone who asks. Women will go to a guy film, but guys won’t go to a women’s film. Women can’t carry an action movie. US and international audiences prefer male leads. Et cetera. And any film that breaks this expectation (Alien, anyone? Or Aliens? Silence of the Lambs? Gravity, Hunger Games, Frozen?) is quickly dismissed as an exception to the rule, an anomaly that owes its existence to some special factor such as above-average direction, a fantastic script, fortuitous market timing, etc. Conversely, when a female-led movie bombs, it’s never because the script stank or the direction was crap. It can only be because a woman headed the film and audiences don’t want that.

Turns out that when one actually crunches the data, Hollywood’s “wisdom” is a steaming pile of horse manure. FiveThirtyEight “analyzed 1,615 films released from 1990 to 2013 to examine the relationship between the prominence of women in a film and that film’s budget and gross profits.” The analytical basis was the Bechdel test, a tongue-in-cheek criticism of Hollywood by cartoonist Alison Bechdel. To pass the test, a movie must 1) have at least two women in it, who 2) talk to each other, about 3) something besides a man.

It’s a very low bar. Yet Hollywood trips and falls over it more than 50% of the time.

One thing that FiveThirtyEight’s analysis discovered is that Hollywood throws the biggest budgets at films in which none of the female characters ever speak to each other — about men or anything else.

Hickey bechdel 2

Seeing that, it’s not a surprise that films which actually do pass the Bechdel test have the lowest budgets of all. And since budget affects the caliber of writers, directors, and stars which can be hired, as well as all marketing efforts, it’s easy to see a self-fulfilling prophecy here.

And yet somehow, despite the severe handicap of being starved of cash, films with a strong female presence make money. In fact, in the US they make considerably more money than films that fail the test.

Hickey bechdel 3

So much for Hollywood “wisdom.”

In light of this analysis, it’s particularly timely and satisfying that Frozen — a film with not one but two female leads — passed $1 billion in worldwide ticket sales back in the beginning of March. One month later, Frozen has become the most profitable animated film in history, passing up Toy Story and showing no signs of slowing down.

It must be because of the script. Or maybe the songs. Or, wait, it’s the snowman; everyone loves the snowman.

Okay, sarcasm aside, let’s celebrate the success of Frozen with this wonderful video just released by Disney. “Let it Go,” the bring-down-the-house power ballad that anchors the movie, won the Oscar for Best Original Song and is mostly known for Idina Menzel’s glorious vocals. But who sang the song for the non-English versions of the film?

A whole bunch of talented women, that’s who. Here’s the view from “behind the mic,” in 25 different languages.


About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
This entry was posted in culture, video. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Hollywood’s conventional “wisdom” proven wrong by actual data

  1. James Haney says:

    Nothing new in that

    It’s been known for years now that Hollywood is run by morons.

  2. cw says:

    Cool, almost enough to make me actually want to watch a movie. The 25 languages thing was fantastic. But with USA TV being 5 minutes show and 10 minutes commercials even on basic cable at $50 or more a month I’d rather read. Haven’t had working tv for more than a year. So, Oregon expat, please find time to give us a novel soon!

    Love your Star Trek Voyager fanfic and the stories written for your wife. And, my solution to Microsoft dropping support for Windows XP? I’m buying an Apple! Thanks for helping convince this old timer.


  3. Ines says:

    Loved this post, not only for the message (nothing new though), but I didn’t know about this video and it is beyond awesome! Frozen is a beautiful thing 🙂

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