Over the past couple of days The Hunger Games: Catching Fire ($410 million) officially passed Iron Man 3 ($408 million) to become the top domestic-grossing release of 2013. That’s actually a little misleading since $15 million of Catching Fire‘s $410 million domestic total has come since the calender switched over to 2014. As such, Iron Man 3 actually made more money in the calender year of 2013, but year end lists tend to extend a grace period so that money made the first month of the following year counts thus Catching Fire being the new #1. Of course, Iron Man 3‘s worldwide total of $1.2 billion is still quite a bit more than Catching Fire’s $834 million, but at least at the domestic market Katniss Everdeen just kicked Tony Stark’s butt.
Catching Fire being the top-grossing release of 2013, even if just domestic, seems kind of significant because it is led by a female character. So, since this type of thing is easy to do thanks to BoxOfficeMojo.com many people have looked back at the history of film to find the last time a female-led movie was the top domestic grossing release of the year. The answer? A long ass time ago, and it largely depends on who you would consider to be a female lead:
1997 – Titanic – But is that really a female-led movie? Is Kate Winslet the lead of that movie or is Leonardo DiCaprio? Storyline wise, Winslet’s character, both young and old, gets the most screen time, and she is the dynamic character who actually changes throughout the course of the movie. DiCaprio mostly stays the same. However, it’s not the movie about Rose but about Rose and Jack, right? Heck, the Hunger Games poster has Katniss solo with her crossbow while Titanic had both Winslet and DiCaprio.
1973 – The Exorcist – Is Ellen Burstyn’s mother to the possessed little girl really the lead? What about Father Karras?
1970 – Love Story – That is Ali McGraw and Ryan O’Neal’s movie, not McGraw or O’Neal but both of their’s.
1965 – The Sound of Music – Actually, no argument here. That is Julie Andrews’ movie.
Catching Fire did something very rare in the history of film. Does this now mean that Hollywood will finally give us a female-led superhero movie? It’s a lot more likely. However, that doesn’t also guarantee that such a hypothetical movie will be a huge hit just because it has a female as its star. Heck, there have been some pretty decent female-led action movies as of late that still struggled to turn a profit, .e.g., Gina Carano in Haywire ($33 million worldwide on a $23 million budget) and Zoe Saldana in Colombiana ($60 million worldwide on a $40 million budget).
The individual performance of Catching Fire is significant, but it is also afforded the luxuries others aren’t. Only Harry Potter and Twilight have also been able to also parlay their ginormous popularity as YA novels to even bigger movies. While Twilight is not nearly as respected and Bella Swan the bane of many a feminist’s existence, each one of those films was at least a top 10 (usually top 5) year-end domestic grossing film the years they came out. Hunger Games is doing the same thing except just bigger, and we like Katniss a lot more.
You can’t easily recreate the success of Catching Fire. On its own, it is but an interesting box office anomaly, a more pro-girl power side of the Twilight coin. However, then there’s Frozen (4th highest grossing of 2013). And Gravity (7th highest grossing of 2013). And The Heat (15th highest grossing of 2013). Plus, even though it’s not really a female-led movies then there’s the surprising importance of the female audience to the success of Fast & Furious 6 (8th highest grossing of 2013). Taken altogether, that’s when you start seeing that 2013 was a big year for female characters on film, and the power of the female audience
You can’t just give audiences movies with female lead characters and get a hit. The female audience is important, but they won’t be won over by tokenism. However, you can give everyone good movies with strongly written female characters that manage to appeal to both genders. Of course, it’s never that easy. Was The Heat such a big hit domestically because of the female characters? Or just because it was fantastic comedic counter-programming in one over the most over-stuffed, sausage fests of a summer movie season in recent memory? Is Gravity just such a hit because of its visual splendor and boost from 3D, Sandra Bullock thus just being along for the ride? Is Frozen really being driven by female viewers? Is a movie about Disney princesses making a lot of money really that unique? Sure, Princess & The Frog didn’t do well, but Tangled made a ton of money ($591 million worldwide in 2010, 8th best of the year). Plus, what’s the deal with only 2 of the top 100 movies of 2013 having female directors?
For a variety of reasons, the gender gap in film, both behind and in front of the screen, is one of the hottest topics going at the moment. There aren’t enough female directors, writers, producers, strong roles for actresses, etc. Whatever. It’s a conversation that’s been going on for a long time, but seems to have taken an air of added urgency post-Twilight (we want female characters, sure, but good ones!) and post-Iron Man 2 (what’s with Black Widow guest-starring in Iron Man‘s movie – why not a female superhero for a change?). This won’t be solved over night. However, the collective might of Hunger Games, Frozen, Gravity, and even The Heat might have just advanced the cause.