The Success of 'Wonder Woman' Speaks Volumes About Opportunity
Wonder Woman decimated box office records during its opening weekend and hopefully helped vanquished once and for all some commonly held myths in the film industry.
Raise your hand if you’ve heard any number of the following: Audiences won’t go see a superhero movie starring a woman, especially after flops like mid-2000s offerings Elektra and Catwoman. It’s a “gamble” to hand over a big budget action epic to a female director. Wonder Woman's -- a.k.a Diana of Themyscira -- backstory is too convoluted and it's impossible to bring to life on screen.
Right, and Peter Parker has a radioactive spider and a bridge in Queens he can sell you.
But here is what is true. Let’s follow the money, shall we?
The film netted an opening weekend domestic box office gross of $100.5 million, the biggest opening for a female director, ever. Worldwide, it raked in $223 million.
Compared to its super-powered peers, Wonder Woman beat out Iron Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, the first Thor and Captain America films, Doctor Strange and a passel of Spiderman and X-Men sequels, Box Office Mojo reported.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, “most superhero films rely on 60 percent or more of the audience being male.” For Wonder Woman, the demographic makeup of the opening weekend audience was 52 percent women and 48 percent men.
It's quite easy to be skeptical about our current cinematic climate. It can seem oversaturated with existing intellectual properties and simultaneously labored and empty expanded universe storytelling designed to rake in absurd amounts of money and nothing more.
There are franchises that are seemingly critic-proof and get reinvented time and time again. If they stumble, each reinvention or recasting is another chance for redemption in the eyes of Hollywood and the moviegoing public.
But to ask why Wonder Woman worked when Elektra and Catwoman (both directed by men, by the way) didn’t is to establish a false equivalency. What the success of Wonder Woman shows us is that the vision you create and the team you put together to back it is what matters.
But so does access to opportunity.
“You know when it will feel like women are equal at the box office?” asked The Daily Show’s Michelle Wolf in a recent segment about the film. “When we get to make a bad superhero movie and then immediately make another bad one. Men get chance after chance to make superhero movies. No one left crappy Batman v Superman saying ‘Well, I guess we’re done making man movies.’”
Let’s go back to that idea that Warner Bros. was taking a gamble hiring Patty Jenkins to direct Wonder Woman.
In 2003, Jenkins made Monster starring Charlize Theron as serial killer Aileen Wuornos for $8 million over the course of 28 days. The movie made $34.4 million at the domestic box office and Theron won an Oscar for her work in the film. Though Jenkins has worked steadily in television, and was going to direct the second Thor movie before parting ways with Marvel, this was the first feature film she has made in 14 years.
Now, in 2015, there were two big budget revivals of beloved intellectual properties: Jurassic Park and Fantastic Four.
Colin Trevorrow was selected to shepherd Jurassic World after making an independent sci-fi comedy in 2012 called Safety Not Guaranteed on a $750,000 budget. It made $4 million at the box office. Jurassic World cost $150 million to make and had a domestic gross of $652 million. Trevorrow’s next gig is closing out the latest Star Wars trilogy.
In 2012, Josh Trank made a sci-fi indie of his own. Chronicle’s budget was $12 million and saw a return of $64.5 million at the domestic box office. His next job was the gritty reboot (if I had a dollar) of Fantastic Four. It was made for $120 million but earned $56 million at the domestic box office.
That, friends, is called a flop. But Trank has his next job lined up -- a film he’s writing and directing about the final days of Al Capone, starring Tom Hardy. Fancy, right?
But if you look at the statistics around representation behind the camera, the career trajectories of Jenkins, Trevorrow and Trank are a quick snapshot of a much broader issue.
In January of 2017, a study conducted by the USC Annenberg Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative found that of the top 100 grossing films of the last 10 years, 44 of those movies were directed by women. There are 24 male directors for every female director.
Out of the 1,114 total number of directors that helmed 1,000 films from 2007 to 2016, only 57 were Black or African American and 34 were Asian American. And of that cross-section of filmmakers, three African American women, three Asian American women and one Latina woman got their movies made.
Just a few weeks after that research was published, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced that following an investigation that had lasted nearly a year and a half, it found that major Hollywood studios had “systematically discriminated” against female directors.
But Hollywood isn’t the only industry that the EEOC has trained its eye on recently. Last year, it released a report that confirms again the regular criticism aimed at the tech industry: serious work needs to be done on the diversity front.
A recent study out of Sweden found that when men and women went to pitch venture capitalists about their companies, their experiences were markedly different. In describing the entrepreneurs behind closed doors, while men were viewed as, for example, “cautious, sensible and levelheaded,” women were considered to be “too cautious and does not dare.” Where a women was “experienced but worried,” a man was “experienced but knowledgeable.”
And those impressions bore out in the money they raised for their efforts. Fifty-three percent of women’s applications were rejected, but when they got through, they were given 25 percent of the amount of money they applied for. Meanwhile, men got rejected 38 percent of the time but when they had a successful pitch, they got 52 percent of the money they wanted.
Here’s the thing -- they aren’t, to broadly paraphase Michelle Wolf, going to stop making man companies anytime soon because of the mistakes made by a few. But for many female leaders, the road to the top requires them to navigate around entrenched biases. And second chances can be few and far between.
Wonder Woman’s success reminds me of another superhero movie that came out recently. The Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures tells the true story of NASA mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. Without the work of these African American pioneers, it would not have been possible for the United States to land on the moon.
Related: 7 Most Inspiring Stories Behind the 2017 Oscars
Johnson, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by former President Barack Obama, had a remarkable career. But she was a genius that many people did not know about before the book and film -- $25 million budget, $169 million domestic box office -- about her and her fellow NASA “computers.”
I took a couple of questions away from Hidden Figures. Namely, what innovation doesn’t happen when we have a limited view of who is capable enough to lead? What problems will go unsolved and what triumphs will we miss out on because there is only one type of person who can make that calculation or direct that movie or run that company?
The answer is pretty clear. To underestimate someone, dismiss them or not give them a chance to succeed -- or at least fail and try again -- because they don’t look like or act like what has come before is to do so at your own folly.
In the meantime, what can consumers do if they are passionate about these systemic issues? Vote with your wallet. Might I suggest you go check out Wonder Woman at a theater near you? I hear it’s the number-one movie in the world.