Girls on Film: The Summer 2011 Box Office & Why It's Okay to Not be Superheroes

Girls on Film: The Summer 2011 Box Office & Why It's Okay to Not be Superheroes

Sep 01, 2011

Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.


Bridesmaids, Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph

Summer might not officially end until later this month, but really the season is just about over. We’ll have the last frenzied push of warm-weather fun this weekend and then it’s back to school, back to fall, and back to the mellower cinematic schedule, where every week isn’t punctuated by superheroes out to save the world and action bursting fourth in the third dimension.

It’s been a crazy summer for the box office and women in film. On the surface it seems all sorts of swell. Studios enjoyed a record-breaking year money-wise, raking in a hefty $4.5 billion, and summer pictures made up 15 of the 20 Top Domestic Grossing films of 2011 thus far. (It will likely be 16 by the end of Labor Day weekend, as the 21st place surprise hit The Help is still going strong and needs less than $3 million to grab the 20-spot from the winter release Just Go With It.)

It all sounds super-peachy, but that amount tells us nothing about the tickets sold, once you weed out the 3D price-tags and fancy screens, nor the monstrous production costs, nor how well or poorly the sequels did compared to their cinematic brethren.  As USAToday reports, summer attendance came in at 558 million tickets, which would’ve been the lowest total in a decade, if not for last year’s 551 million tickets. The studios bet heavily on the franchise, the special effects, and the lure of superheroes, and they experienced mixed results.

The Top Ten Pre-Labor Day Summer Films

1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows | $371,535,432 | N/A

2. Transformers: Dark of the Moon | $349,614,219 | $195 million

3. The Hangover: Part II | $254,318,114 | $80 million

4. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides | $240,461,924 | $250 million

5. Cars 2 |$187,360,986 | $200 million

6. Thor | $181,030,624 | $150 million

7. Captain America: The First Avenger | $169,265,562 | $140 million

8. Bridesmaids | $168,115,360 | $32.5 million

9. Kung Fu Panda 2 | $164,321,258 | $150 million

10. Rise of the Planet of the Apes | $150,658,296 | $93 million

(Title | Domestic Total | Production Budget)

(Numbers taken from Box Office Mojo’s 2011 Domestic Grosses. All but one of the 2011 top-ten are summer releases. As a yearly total, the #5 spot belongs to the April release Fast Five, which earned $209,837,675.)  

You have to expand the list to 20 to find other superhero flicks like The Green Lantern and The Green Hornet. And even some of the high-ranking films didn’t do as well as their numbers suggest. Sure, Potter, Transformers, and Pirates earned over a billion dollars, but those Pirates needed the foreign box office to become solvent, as did Cars 2. (And animated family films in general couldn’t come close to the success of 2010.) Transformers and Potter soared, but X-Men: First Class couldn’t rise without Wolverine and The Hangover: Part 2 earned less love and less money than the original.

Mutants in X-Men: First Class

At first glimpse, the sea of top grossing films offering boy wizards, male superheroes, tough guys, and further tastes of testosterone suggest that it’s even more important for women to break into the superhero and action mold – not just to be better represented in those genres, but to be an active part of the leading moneymakers each year. There will always be a palpable imbalance if the Top 10’s and 20’s are all test-fests. It’s possible, if some talent just believed in the idea – a history of Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, The Bride, Hit Girl, and others prove that a tough woman can be beloved, as long as they’re treated well creatively, instead of set up for ridicule like Halle Berry in Catwoman.

Right now, however, being superhero-free might not be such a bad thing. Yes, we’re all missing the almost completely vacant world of supernatural women in those movies, and wondering why Joss Whedon is leaving out so many great female Avengers. Women like Peggy Carter and Jane Foster are cool, but they’re still mainly love interests – they’re not donning the funky costumes and wreaking havoc on the hordes of evildoers. But, interestingly, being superhero-free has offered up a nice side benefit.

The top two male dominated features -- the number two Transformers and number three Hangover -- carried budgets that ate 55% and 31% of their domestic gross, respectively. The former found its budget taking up 6%-8% more than its predecessors, while Todd Phillips’ sequel ate up almost 20% more than the original. It got worse once you journeyed into the superhero portion of the Top Ten. The top men-in-tights films, Thor and Captain America, found their budgets eating up 82% and 83%, respectively. The foreign take might have eased the sting of these numbers, but it couldn’t remove the distinct difference in local success when it came to the women-centric hits.

They might only make up a couple of the top spots, but their numbers speak higher than their rank. Bridesmaids – the eighth best summer money maker, and Judd Apatow’s most successful film to date – saw only 19% of its gross eaten by the budget. The Help, meanwhile, has earned so much domestically that its budget makes up only 24% of their domestic gross. There’s no 3D to up the numbers either; these films simply charmed audiences and sold tons of tickets. It’s not so different than the two Sandra Bullock films that were making box office waves two years ago. The Proposal’s budget/domestic gross percentage was 24, while The Blind Side was 11.

The Blind Side, Quinton Aaron and Sandra Bullock

These films are breaking through the sea of big-budget madness with modest means. These aren’t franchises relying on pre-established fanbases and studios willing to continually throw money into sequels. Both films simply figured out a way to please audiences. For all that could be said about The Help, the film knew just how to take a potentially forgettable story and turn it into a cinematic event. Likewise, Bridesmaids proved what only existed in theory before – that women can carry comedic films just as well, if not better than men. (You can argue that last point but remember, this was Judd Apatow’s most successful film to date, by almost $20 million.)

Sure, it would be great to see the testosterone world of superheroes get a much-needed epi-pen of estrogen. Maybe now it's only a matter of time as female cinematic success becomes a regular event and not an occasional fluke. As the studios suffer the backlash against their feverish desires to milk titles and themes for all their worth, women can slip in and offer excellent, genuine entertainment and grab some of the top spots one by one. And when some stodgy studio head claims it's all a fluke, there will be a lovely trail of moneymaking proof to prove him wrong.

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