Before Universal Pictures decided to scale back the release of By the Sea from wide to limited this past week, this Friday was to be the first time, in North American cinema history, that three films directed by women would open in wide release on the same weekend. In fact, as far as my research shows, it will still be the first time that two female-helmed wide releases have opened on the same day. Considering the recent findings by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University that only 7% of Hollywood movies are directed by women, it’s a surprising and hopeful moment for female artists in Hollywood.
The films also couldn’t look more different, nor do they particularly resemble Hollywood films that have been historically directed by women. With The 33, Patricia Riggen directs a docudrama about the 2010 Chilean mining catastrophe, while Jessie Nelson helms the holiday-themed comedy Love the Coopers. And By the Sea, especially with its looky-pouty trailer involving a sexually frustrated married couple, is Angelina Jolie Pitt doing her damndest to give cinephiles a glimmer of hope that it’ll be a redux of Eyes Wide Shut.
Early reviews haven’t been especially kind to Jolie’s film, and judging by the review of our own Elise Nakhnikian, The 33 is a flat, melodramatic telling of its “truly dramatic story.” Reviews for Love the Coopers are embargoed until Thursday night, which isn’t usually an indicator of studio confidence for subsequent critical praise. Thus, this Friday’s historical significance, as encouraging as it is, might be muddled by each film’s failure to set critical appraisals or the box office on fire—a probability that could lead some to view this week’s releases as the calm before Katniss’s final storm.
Nevertheless, the juxtaposition of these two weeks is, in tandem, a perfect storm for generating more discussion about the implications for female filmmakers and actresses in Hollywood. In this instance, box office seems a trivial matter, at least from a data-head perspective, since a singular focus on the numbers obscures, or even loses, more meaningful conversations regarding female equality. In other words, the fact that three female filmmakers have major studio films opening on the same weekend is a more meaningful story than tracking The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1’s box office, which is likely to be strong, but by no means historic.
As a woman, Nancy Meyers is more vulnerable to bad reviews and poor box office than Michael Bay.
Thinkpieces regarding women in Hollywood are more widespread now than ever before. While many have noted how few women direct Hollywood films and even fewer, if any, are given the chance at franchise entries, some have taken issue with a perceived bias by film critics against female filmmakers. In a recent article for The Guardian, Clem Bastow expressed dissatisfaction with film critics—80% male according to a report by Vulture—who gave The Intern “unduly harsh criticism” for being “unrealistic,” but failed to give equally unrealistic, male-centric films the same level of scrutiny.
Bastow mounts less of a defense for The Intern than an offensive against critics who might, say, praise Judd Apatow in one review and slam Nancy Meyers in another, virtually for doing the same thing. Bastow certainly has a point about female-directed films generally receiving negative reviews: Of the 12 wide-release, live-action films directed by women over the last five years, four have a positive score on Rotten Tomatoes and one is The Intern, clinging to its 60% fresh rating.
Bastow’s disdain is well-taken. As she rightfully points out, Meyers is much more vulnerable to bad reviews and poor box office than, say, Michael Bay or Brett Ratner, since every new film has to re-prove Meyers as a commercially viable option, whereas the men can withstand a misfire or two. Look at the production budget for The Intern, which dropped to $35 million following the soft domestic performances of both The Holiday and It’s Complicated, which were budgeted at $85 million each, though both performed exceptionally internationally. Likewise, for the two women whose films open wide this weekend, it’s inevitable that each film’s critical and financial reception will come under the microscope in ways their male counterparts simply would not have to endure.
Just ask Catherine Hardwicke, whose critical and financial failings with 2011’s Red Riding Hood have since kept her away from commercial filmmaking, opting instead (whether by choice or force is unclear) for the indie circuit with 2013’s Plush and the recent Miss You Already, which opened last weekend in 384 theaters to middling results. One might find it hard to believe that a dramedy starring Drew Barrymore and Toni Collette wouldn’t warrant a nationwide release, but the reality helps back Bastow’s concerns: On a weekend where 007 and Charlie Brown drew millions, a female-centric story with two A-list actresses, sometimes condescendingly called “counter-programming,” couldn’t even find its way into most theaters.
Not that female-centric films haven’t been kicking some box-office ass of their own. As Time says the summer box office was “ruled” by women, with top films like Pitch Perfect 2 and Inside Out featuring multiple female leads. But the point isn’t whether women can be box-office draws, which is irrefutable, but generating further discussions about why women aren’t being hired in more prominent directorial roles and how the industry and media outlets choose to either market and cover films that are helmed by women. As for this milestone weekend, The 33 is likely to dig in at $8 million, while Love the Coopers will struggle to keep pace with around $6 million.