Movies that fail the Bechdel Test are leaving box office money on the table

A new study finds that women-led films are more profitable at the box office than movies starring men.

CREDIT: Disney/LucasFilm
CREDIT: Disney/LucasFilm

Conventional wisdom, which more and more seems to be a euphemism for “inaccurate beliefs people cling to for no reason,” holds that men don’t want to see movies about women, and that movies about women just don’t make money. At least, they don’t make as much money as movies about men. Men are profitable and women are not, and if you put more than one woman on your movie poster, the men who see said poster while going about their day will spontaneously combust. Having combusted thusly, they will not be able to see your movie, and because women don’t count, this essentially means no one will see your movie, and all the efforts behind your film will be for naught.

Surprising news, then. Even though women are famously terrible at math, someone — probably a man — did some number-crunching and made this promising discovery: The top movies from 2014 to 2017 starring women earned more money than movies that starred men.

Movies that passed the Bechdel test (a comic-strip-turned-litmus-test that calls for at least two named female characters to have one conversation about something other than a man during the course of a movie) have made more money than those that failed. In fact, since 2012, all of the films that have eclipsed one billion dollars at the box office are films that passed the Bechdel Test.

The source of these findings: The Creative Artists Agency and tech company shift7. Though depending on the perspective you bring to this data, the findings aren’t necessarily surprising; women, both in the industry and in the audience, have been talking about this for decades. But as CAA agent Christy Haubegger, who both heads the agency’s multicultural business development department as well as serving as a member of the research team, told the New York Times, “A lot of times in our business there is a lot of bias disguising itself as knowledge.”

The research, which is based on 350 films, builds on Haubegger’s ongoing efforts at CAA to collect data that can be deployed to make the business case for diversity on-screen and behind the camera.


In an interview with Entertainment Weekly last year, Haubegger talked about a “deep-dive analysis” CAA had done over 415 films from the past two years that tallied audience composition. “Seven of the 10 largest movies had an opening-weekend audience that was majority nonwhite,” she said, and “at every budget level, a movie with a cast that was 30 percent or more diverse outperformed, in its opening weekend, one that was not.”

Haubegger’s data are part of a joint effort with Time’s Up. In 2017, Time’s Up and CAA released a report on how movies with inclusive casts have bigger opening weekends than those with homogeneous casts.

Aside from the obvious — people want to see themselves on screen — Haubegger had a “more specific” theory for why inclusive casts bring in bigger audiences: They act as a “marketing proxy”:

If you have an African-American cast member, you actually have someone who can go on the BET Awards red carpet and talk about the film. If you have a Spanish speaker, you have someone doing Despierta America as well as GMA. If you have someone who is Asian-American, their social media following has more reach among Asian Americans than maybe their white cast members do. So this is a bit of a hypothesis, but we believe that it’s a bit of a proxy for marketing and media reach. In other words, if you’re trying to open a movie, especially a big movie, you cannot not get the attention of half of the moviegoers and not succeed.

And this June, she launched the Amplify Database, a searchable directory of more than 800 television writers of color, a one-click response to “we just couldn’t find any non-white writers for this show.”


Are decision-makers seeing this data and actually acting on it? Not just yet: The latest study on this front found no progress for females on screen in film in over a decade. As ThinkProgress reported in July, women were only 31.8 percent of the speaking characters in the top 100 films in 2017. By early adulthood, rather than just be silent, women totally disappear: 75.4 percent of characters over 40 were male.