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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

movies that pass the Bechdel Test make more money than movies that don’t

divergentwoodleywinslet

In case you missed this… and so I have a post here ready to link to every time someone trots out the ol’ “But Hollywood is just a business and if movies with women made money Hollywood would make them!”

From FiveThirtyEight:

The Dollar-And-Cents Case Against Hollywood’s Exclusion of Women

Using Bechdel test data, we analyzed 1,615 films released from 1990 to 2013 to examine the relationship between the prominence of women in a film and that film’s budget and gross profits. We found that the median budget of movies that passed the test — those that featured a conversation between two women about something other than a man — was substantially lower than the median budget of all films in the sample. What’s more, we found that the data doesn’t appear to support the persistent Hollywood belief that films featuring women do worse at the box office. Instead, we found evidence that films that feature meaningful interactions between women may in fact have a better return on investment, overall, than films that don’t.

You should go read FiveThirtyEight to understand where writer Walt Hickey got his numbers and how he crunched them. And how those numbers can be used to smash the usual arguments against featuring representatives of half the human race in movies: that audiences don’t like them, for instance, or that they don’t sell internationally.

The numbers say those arguments are bullshit. And if Hollywood is all about numbers, they should listen. Except… if Hollywood were truly all about numbers, Hollywood would know this already. So I don’t anticipate seeing any drastic changes from Hollywood’s SOP soon.

image above from ‘Divergent,’ in which known females Shailene Woodley and Kate Winslet talk about politics, culture, history, cuisine, and fascism


  • Marlin

    Hollywood accountants have *never* been about financial actualities. They’ve been about creating whatever financial fiction was most useful to the studio. It can be said that the accounting departments are at least as creative as any other department in a studio.

    So, they’ll question his numbers, they’ll question their sources, they’ll question his motives and they’ll note that whatever his stats say, they don’t agree with the numbers that have been submitted to, and legally accepted as accurate by, the IRS and the SEC.

  • So, you’re suggesting that Hollywood accountants have been faking the numbers that show that movies with some substantial female characters in them make more money than others. Or that numbers that only *pretend* to show that movies with some substantial female characters in them make more money than others are useful to the studios. Why? Neither seems to make any sense.

  • I think Marlin is talking about how Star Wars never actually made any profit because of clever accounting, etc… not sure if he/she is even talking about what the article is actually about.

    I did find this one interesting when I saw it the other day — though to be fair I don’t know that the numbers bear out “more money”… just more money per dollar spent. Still seems like a good place to question why none of the “big” movies feel like we’d be interested in seeing two women talk about stuff. I’m up for it!

  • I understand how Hollywood’s “clever accounting” works. The numbers that are public are the “clever” ones. If Hollywood suddenly wants to admit that those numbers are false in order to refute the apparent facts as revealed by 538, that’s going to be interesting to watch.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    When has “Hollywood” ever felt the need to refute anyone’s interpretations of their accounting practices?

    (That’s not really a rhetorical question: has any studio ever publicly defended their accounting? )

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Here’s a question: do Natasha Romanov and Maria Hill ever talk to each other? I’m pretty sure Natasha spoke to Pepper Potts, but I’m pretty sure they were talking about Tony. Peggy Carter and Betty Ross had no women to talk to at all, though Jane Foster has Darcy. And we all love Darcy. :)

  • Are you talking about *Winter Soldier*? I’m not sure if it passes the test. If it does, it’ll be thanks only to a very brief conversation or two, nothing of any real significance. There *are* three or four female characters with fairly meaty roles (Natasha, Maria, Steve’s neighbor, and the councilwoman), but I can’t remember them interacting with one another much, if at all.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Winter Soldier or Avengers.
    No, Agent 13 only speaks to Steve and Sitwell. The councilwoman only speaks to Robert Redford.

  • RogerBW

    I think that Hollywood is just like most modern institutions: it knows what it wants to do, and it uses the numbers as a justification for doing what it was going to do anyway. If they don’t point that way, well, “they must be wrong in some way”.

  • Danielm80

    Would Art Buchwald’s lawsuit against Paramount count?

  • OnceJolly

    “And how those numbers can be used to smash the usual arguments against featuring representatives of half the human race in movies: that audiences don’t like them, for instance, or that they don’t sell internationally.”

    Except that Hickey’s number show no such thing. First, he goes at some length to explain the limitations of the Bechdel test, noting that “the Bechdel test isn’t measuring whether a film is a model of gender equality. It doesn’t certify that a movie is “good” when it comes to integrating women. And passing it doesn’t mean that female characters are well written, play crucial roles in the plot or display meaningful depth of character.”

    Despite these limitations, he claims “we found evidence that films that feature meaningful interactions between women may in fact have a better return on investment, overall, than films that don’t.” However, even ignoring the limitations of the Bechdel test, his results are contradictory. Although he finds that the median return on movies that pass the Bechdel test are higher, this difference vanishes once the budget is controlled for. As Hickey notes in the comments section: “The regression also found that as budget gets higher, ROI gets lower. And since films that pass the test tended to have lower budgets, that explained why raw ROI was higher than expected.” In other words, after adjusting for the budget, movies that pass the Bechdel test do about the same as movies that don’t.

    Contrary to the claims made here and elsewhere, Hickey is *not* providing compelling evidence that Hollywood is leaving money on the table.

  • RogerBW

    The budget correlation isn’t as strong as you’re assuming; it weakens the case but doesn’t drive it below the level of statistical significance.
    (Killing megabudget films seems like a worthwhile goal in itself.)

  • OnceJolly

    I’m not assuming anything. Hickey writes in the article “Controlling for the movie’s budget, which has a negative and significant relationship to a film’s return on investment, passing the Bechdel test had no effect on the film’s return on investment.”

  • RogerBW

    Go to the raw data. The methodology is less than perfect.

  • OnceJolly

    Care to substantiate your claim?

  • OnceJolly

    I’m actually amused by your earlier comment: “it knows what it wants to do, and it uses the numbers as a justification for doing what it was going to do anyway. If they don’t point that way, well, “they must be wrong in some way”.”

  • Kelly Fergison

    If you want to see a movie that passes the Bechamel test, you must see Mommys’ Night Out (you will like it!). Did you see it? I went to special screening with other moms and everyone said it pass Bechamel test. FYI: Bechamel just so happenes to be my favorite sauce!

  • LaSargenta

    We need a movie about this: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/12/141212-women-land-mines-war-mozambique-africa-culture/

    Not a documentary (although no harm in that), but a movie. A really good movie with all kinds of characters and conflict and suspense and tragedy and everything that would be wrapped up into something with this at its core. Even got explosions. Hell, get Michael Bay to make it…even. Maybe. >-<

    No problem passing the Bechdel test…

    “Women are the people in Mozambique who are responsible for gathering firewood and water, and for tilling the fields,” says Kate Brady of the United Nations Development Programme in Mozambique. “Therefore, they are [most] likely to be affected by land [land mine] contamination.”

  • There are *so many* incredible, exciting stories we could be telling about women. A lack of such is not why we’re not getting them.

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