That huge pile of receipts busted the record for the highest-grossing opening weekend for a film directed by a woman. (The previous record was held by Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey, which made $85 million in its 2015 opening weekend.) It also debuted in the top spot in many countries, including China, where it made $38 million.
Whether a film makes money has, of course, relatively little to do with its artistic quality. Only two of the movies nominated for Oscars in 2016 broke the top 20 domestic box office gross — La La Land and Hidden Figures.
But Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins, seems to have hit a sweet spot for American audiences. Critics and audiences alike have praised the movie, which has a 93 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, a 76 on the more selective Metacritic, and an A on CinemaScore, which measures the film’s appeal to moviegoers around the world. Those are very high rankings for any movie, but especially for one from Warner Bros.’ DC Cinematic Universe, which has had a rough go of it for a while.
But that’s not even the first box office record obliteration for 2017: Earlier this year, with the runaway success of his horror film Get Out, Jordan Peele became the first black writer-director to make more than $100 million with his debut film — in history.
This is terrific news — and not just for the future of filmmakers who aren’t white men. Something big is happening in Hollywood. And if we’re lucky, everyone will benefit.
Women are underrepresented in Hollywood, and that matters for the storytelling
In 2016, just 7 percent of the 250 top domestic grossing films were directed by women. Among high-ranking roles on film productions (like producers, editors, writers, and cinematographers), that number was higher, but not by much: Only 17 percent of those roles were filled by women.
Those are troubling numbers for many reasons, partly because they actually represent a drop from 2015. And Jessica Chastain, speaking as a member of the jury at the Cannes Film Festival in late May, pointed out one of the biggest reasons it’s important to change this: The ways in which women are represented onscreen change when women are telling the stories.
Wonder Woman is unique: It’s a tentpole comic book movie about a superhero in which both the protagonist and the director are women. Hollywood studios rarely hire women to direct major films. And though men whose films bomb at the box office often get second (and third and fourth) chances by studios, women rarely do.
So Wonder Woman’s big numbers matter. The stakes were very high for this film — so high that when Michelle MacLaren, who was formerly attached to the film, left in 2015 because of “creative differences” with Warner Bros., there was widespread speculation that there was no margin of error for a woman making a tentpole film about a female superhero. "Walking away now because she knows that she can’t make a good movie is 100 times less damaging than making a bad movie or walking into a production that is conflict-ridden,” filmmaker Lexi Alexander told MTV News.
Why were the stakes so high? Because if the movie flopped, it would have two effects. One, it would flatten the chances for future big-budget films with female protagonists, and two, it would dampen the chances of another woman director being entrusted with a tentpole film.
But Wonder Woman didn’t flop — not even close. Yet even its success points to the sexism baked into Hollywood. The Hollywood Reporter noted that “Wonder Woman's performance could put even more pressure on film companies to make more job offers to women filmmakers” — something they’re loath to do.
But of course, just because Patty Jenkins took on Wonder Woman and made a great movie doesn’t mean that all female filmmakers will do so in the future. You’ll know parity is really on the horizon when a female director makes a movie that flops, and then is allowed to direct a big-budget feature in the future.
Wonder Woman challenges old ideas about movies by and about women
There’s another reason Wonder Woman’s success matters: It challenges what Hollywood thinks it knows about moviegoers. Big-budget studio films have aimed to appeal to what the industry perceives to be the widest possible swath of moviegoers to maximize ticket sales. That leads to what we see this summer — an endless stream of sequels, reboots, and adaptations of already-beloved properties that seem like safe bets.
But there’s some indication that everything the studios once thought they knew is wrong.
For instance, conventional Hollywood wisdom is that audiences won’t go see a movie if the protagonist is female. Of course, what execs actually mean is that men won’t go see a movie with a female protagonist. Women will — but they’re a “niche” audience.
In her Oscar acceptance speech for Blue Jasmine in 2014, Cate Blanchett called out this way of thinking:
And thank you to ... those of us in the industry who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films, with women at the center, are niche experiences. They are not — audiences want to see them and, in fact, they earn money. The world is round, people.
But the perception persists, along with other ideas about what constitutes a “niche” audience — for instance, that only black people will go see movies about black people, while movies about white people attract a “default” audience and will make more money.
Wonder Woman also managed to uproot this assertion. The typical audience for a comic book movie is 60 percent male; the audience for Wonder Woman did indeed skew female.
But the numbers are telling. Fifty-two percent of the audience for the movie identified as female — which means a whopping 48 percent didn’t. That challenges the idea that only women go to see movies with female stars. And it gets an audience in the door that might not otherwise show up for a comic book movie.
The problem with the old way of thinking about audiences is not just that it’s wrong; it’s that it’s self-perpetuating. A movie is perceived as having a broader audience, and thus studios throw more marketing money at it, which increases audience awareness and brings in the crowds. And other films that might have benefited from that marketing get pushed down the priority list.
But some kind of revolution is afoot, and the best examples of this — alongside this weekend’s record-busting Wonder Woman debut — are two other recent films: Hidden Figures and Get Out.
Both Hidden Figures and Get Out defied expectations
Hidden Figures, about three black female NASA mathematicians in the early days of the space program, didn’t just rake in awards and earn both critical and audience plaudits last year — it also made a boatload of money. To date, it’s made $169 million in the US, more than six times its production budget, with an additional healthy $60 million abroad. On its first weekend in wide release, it beat Rogue One at the box office.
Conventional Hollywood wisdom says none of this should be true — Hidden Figures features three female leads, all of whom are black. Sure, it’s an inspirational historical story, but it’s about scientists and mathematicians. Why would that make money?
So Hidden Figures’ stellar box office numbers were billed as a “surprise” — which, as the Atlantic’s David Sims pointed out, makes no sense. Two films led by black actors, Creed and Straight Outta Compton, had been box office hits just a year earlier. Plenty of movies about women have done fine at the box office.
Plus, anyone who actually watched Hidden Figures should have known they had a hit on their hands: a family-friendly but adult-skewed drama that’s also funny, uplifting, and based on a true story? And there are astronauts?
Yet the success of a film like Hidden Figures is still considered a surprise — just as the runaway success of Jordan Peele’s Get Out surprised everyone.
Get Out is a bit of a different case than either Wonder Woman or Hidden Figures. It was shot on a tiny $4.5 million budget, for one. It’s also an R-rated horror film that gets pretty bloody, and it contains some damning racial commentary that’s pointedly designed to make every white audience member, no matter their political persuasion, squirm uncomfortably. (It’s harshest toward liberals who consider themselves “not racist.”)
Even if the rest of the film were somehow conventional, those elements — the politics and an R rating — would put a damper on expectations. But add to these that the film stars a black actor (Daniel Kaluuya) who isn’t particularly well-known in the US, and was written and directed by Peele, who’s best known for his TV sketch comedy show, and you’ve got a movie you might expect to maybe do well with arthouse audiences.
Yet, bolstered by exuberant reviews (the film has a 99 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) and strong word of mouth, the movie made a ton of money: To date, it’s made more than $175 million in the US and over $71 million abroad, where studios are usually convinced that “black movies” just won’t make money at all. That’s more than $246 million worldwide — almost 55 times as much as its production budget. It’s currently the sixth-highest-grossing film of 2017, nestled right between The Boss Baby and The LEGO Batman Movie.
And keep in mind that Get Out, Hidden Figures, and Wonder Woman are all making bank while the rest of Hollywood flails around trying to figure out what makes money anymore. The Great Wall, starring Matt Damon, flopped at the American box office, way below its producers’ expectations. The highly anticipated Scarlett Johansson–led Ghost in the Shell disappeared after it opened, losing millions of dollars. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword was a bust. And the Baywatch reboot and the fifth installment of Pirates of the Caribbean led to a very disappointing Memorial Day weekend.
There’s never been a surefire formula for making money in Hollywood, but these projects were all greenlit because they seemed like they’d bring in audiences, with big movie stars or reliable franchises behind them. And that works in some cases; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Logan both did well.
But these “surprising” upstarts — which are really just the continuation of “surprising” films that challenge conventional Hollywood wisdom about audiences and filmmakers — are hits with both critics and audiences. The more of these that are released, the higher the mountain of evidence that what Hollywood thinks it knows about American moviegoers might be wrong. And that matters for the future of film.
Hollywood loves its formulas — and money talks
Artistic quality and aesthetic innovation aren’t all that interesting to studio heads and Hollywood producers. It’s not that none of them care; it’s just that movies are a business, and the goal is to make products that appeal to the most people.
And that’s why these box office returns for Hidden Figures, Get Out, and Wonder Woman matter. Unlike the world of independent cinema, where innovation and surprise are the best way to catch the eyes of critics and audiences, Hollywood producers are looking for bankable formulas that they can repeat, until they’ve squeezed every drop of possible ticket money out of the public. So they make zillions of superhero films, or biblical epics, or World War II dramas, or animated movies starring talking animals.
But what if the bankable formula is diversity? What if it turns out that in the age of Netflix and Amazon, when movie tickets are expensive, and when every movie or TV show that’s ever been made can be beamed right into your living room with the click of a button — when it’s easy to find entertainment that is comforting and familiar whenever you want it — what if audiences are happier to take “risks” when they head to the multiplex? What if they might even watch a movie that doesn’t star a white guy, or one that has a story they’ve never heard of before?
Well. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Like all big shifts in the movie industry, these sorts of changes happen in a kind of lurching, erratic fashion. And plenty of fun movies with conventional talent and filmmakers are going to keep coming out and making a lot of money.
But movies like Wonder Woman and Get Out and Hidden Figures are prying open the door to Hollywood producers trusting their investments to a broader, richer, more diverse set of stories, which can be told by a bigger pool of talented actors, writers, and filmmakers. And while producers and executives might know this and even believe in the power of a diverse talent pool in their heads, it’s the profit these movies bring in that has the power to actually get the rusty gears moving.
And even better: The more of those that happen, the bigger the potential for Americans to see not just themselves onscreen but people who aren’t themselves onscreen, too. Maybe they’ll find that they’re enjoying themselves just as much.
Who knows? Art may bring us together after all.