Busting the Myth of the ‘Unprofitable’ Female-Led Action Movie

This weekend’s big release is a Hollywood adaptation of the beloved and critically acclaimed Japanese anime film, Ghost in the Shell. It’s already been the subject of much debate regarding accusations of whitewashing and cultural appropriation, but while those are negative associations I think there’s a positive aspect of the film worth discussing that’s every bit as important.

It’s a big-budget action movie with a female lead.

This isn’t an unheard of situation, of course, and there’s at least one more big-budget, female-led action picture hitting screens this year with Wonder Woman — but that’s still only two compared to the dozen or more headlined by men. Progress is being made and encouraged by the roars of approval for Charlize Theron’s role in Mad Max: Fury Road and Rebecca Ferguson’s in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, but those are supporting characters (or co-leads at best). Why aren’t there more big action films centered on female leads?

The most frequently given answer is a presumed lack of bankability — it’s one of the main reasons it’s taken so damn long to get a Wonder Woman movie into theaters and why we still don’t have a Black Widow solo film — but the numbers don’t back up that argument. Instead, female-led action movies are every bit as inconsistent in their box-office take when compared to their male counterparts … and in one specific way they often fare even better.

Both sexes do better as part of an existing franchise like the Marvel Universe or the Fast & Furious films, but without those safety nets it becomes something of a crap shoot. Stars perceived as bankable like Vin Diesel (The Last Witch Hunter), Dwayne Johnson (Snitch), and Liam Neeson (Run All Night) are hit and miss on their own, with solo titles earning less than one and a half times their budget worldwide. With the general understanding that a film needs to double the budget before it begins making a profit, that 1.5x multiplier is no good. Others, like Matt Damon (Green Zone) and Chris Hemsworth (Blackhat), have delivered action films that didn’t earn back that budget, while “action stars” like Bruce Willis and Jason Statham have made peace with earning even less. Tom Cruise remains the closest male actor, A-list or otherwise, to a sure thing when it comes to big action films, as even his less successful action titles earned at least double their budget worldwide. Yes, even Jack Reacher: Never Go Back.

The female lead often gets blamed for box-office failures like Catwoman and Aeon Flux, but mid-list female stars on mid-range budgets are every bit as prone to box-office unpredictability when it comes to action as their male counterparts. Milla Jovovich bombed with Ultraviolet, but her Resident Evil franchise has earned 4x their budget. Kate Beckinsale couldn’t pay people to see Whiteout, but her Underworld movies have taken in 2.5x budget.

Surprisingly, there’s an exception that tilts the box-office favor towards the ladies when it comes to action films, and it all comes down to casting A-list women as the leads.

While Cruise is the only male A-lister delivering consistent returns, there are actually more than a few female stars who manage the same. Scarlett Johansson will be testing this theory starting this weekend with Ghost in the Shell, but prior to this she’s found success with her Marvel films and the surprise hit Lucy, which she headlined solo and which earned 11x its budget worldwide. If she succeeds with her latest she’ll only be the most recent in a small but visible string of big-name actresses continuing what I see as a trend of delivering the goods at the box office.

Angelina Jolie is the reigning action queen with all but one of her action films at least doubling their budgets. From supporting turns like The Bone Collector (2x) and Gone in Sixty Seconds (2x) to her Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2x) adaptation, she set an early precedent, but she came into her own with the triple threat of Mr. and Mrs. Smith (4x), Wanted (4x), and Salt (3x). All three see her in lead roles, and she even survived the Johnny Depp curse with The Tourist (2x).

Melissa McCarthy brings the laughs along with the beatdowns, and so far her two action pics are a proven formula for success, with The Heat (5x) and Spy (4x) delivering big time. Her partner in The Heat, Sandra Bullock, hasn’t done action since their team-up, but her track record is even more impressive. Her resume includes Speed (10x), The Net (5x), Miss Congeniality (4x), Miss Congeniality 2 (2x), and the arguable inclusion of Gravity (7x). Like Jolie she has a sequel blip with Speed 2, but it’s the exception to the rule (and is really Jason Patric’s fault anyway).

Jodie Foster isn’t typically thought of as an action star, but her handful of forays into the genre all fared well, including The Silence of the Lambs (13x), Maverick (2x), Panic Room (4x), and Flightplan (4x). Jennifer Lawrence has stuck mostly within the world of franchises when it comes to action, with the Hunger Games and X-Men series, but even her recent sci-fi/action picture Passengers has earned 3x its budget.

Hell, even the grand dame of acting, Meryl Streep, paddled her way to a hit with her single action film, The River Wild.

This is all far from scientific — just who qualifies as an A-lister is probably a debatable factor — but the pattern seems fairly clear. Outside of an established franchise, the odds of an action film succeeding at the box office increase dramatically with a big-name actress in a lead role. Now let’s all agree that Charlize Theron is an A-lister before Atomic Blonde hits later this year, because that movie deserves to be huge.


Rob Hunter lives in California and has never met a woman.