- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Flipboard
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Tumblr
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
What makes a box office winner? Conventional wisdom, inferred by the business decisions of studios and distributors, is that movies starring white male protagonists — the most relatable of human beings — are the most reliable guarantor of high ticket grosses. As such, those are the films in which companies place the lion’s share of their investments, lavishing them with the biggest budgets and marketing spends and the broadest theatrical distribution.
But are those high-dollar commitments actually the predictors of, and not merely reactions to, box office success? This is the question that the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative investigates in its new research brief, which examined the protagonists, budgets, marketing spends and distribution densities of the 126 highest-grossing live-action non-ensemble movies of 2021 and 2022 in order to determine whether a protagonist’s demographic identity has anything to do with a movie’s financial performance.
Although movies starring white men indeed grossed the most both domestically and internationally, the authors of the AI2 study argue that this is more a case of a self-fulfilling prophecy than a real correlation, given that movies starring men are given greater production and marketing budgets and are released in more theaters than those starring women. “These findings reveal that protagonist identity in films is directly related to the financial support received from studio executives and financiers,” the authors write. “Consequently, it is impossible to know whether the gender of the protagonist (and/or underrepresented status) drives box office performance of films or the financial support the storyline receives. These variables are confounded.”
So when the researchers statistically controlled for production budget, marketing spend and distribution, they found that gender and/or race was not statistically related to box office performance domestically or internationally, after all. “We also found that stories with women of color at the center perform as well at the box office as stories with white males at the center, when financial support variables are controlled,” the authors continued, adding that stories centering women of color actually had the highest median Metacritic scores among the four identity groups.
These findings support AI2’s 2020 study examining the ties between protagonist demographics and box office performance in 1,200 top-grossing movies from 2007 to 2018. “It is the way that executives support movies about white men that drives their success, not the protagonists themselves,” lead author Stacy L. Smith said in a statement. “Despite these findings, movies about white male characters are still released most often by studios and distributors. From the data, this is economically irresponsible … The reality is that studios and distributors can sell films that they want to sell — they are choosing to sell films about white male leads far more than stories about any other group.
“The system was built to favor storytelling about one group: white males,” Smith continued. “As a result, the lower value placed on films about girls and women means that, in terms of real dollars, they are paid less than their male counterparts. This is a continuing and compounding disadvantage to being a woman in Hollywood. The impact is felt not only by audiences in the form of fewer stories brought to the screen but to women in this industry who are equally talented but under-compensated relative to their male peers. After a summer when actors have been fighting for a fair contract, this data reveals the profound unfairness that simply altering the basic minimum agreement will not address.”
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day
The Exorcist: Believer