Conventional Hollywood wisdom (for lack of a better word) holds that films featuring women in prominent roles don't perform as well as male-centric movies at the box office. But a new report from the number-crunching website FiveThirtyEight indicates that movies that have significant female characters actually offer a better return on investment overall than films that don't.
The report analyzed the box office performance of 1,615 films released between 1990 and 2013, and whether the films pass the "Bechdel test," an assessment created by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in a 1985 comic strip. Passing the three-point test requires that a movie include at least two named female characters, that they have a conversation with each other at some point, and that their conversation isn't about a male character.
The findings indicated that while movies that pass the Bechdel test have a substantially lower median budget than all films in the sample, they make more money dollar for dollar than those that fail the test.
"The total median gross return on investment for a film that passed the Bechdel test was $2.68 for each dollar spent. The total median gross return on investment for films that failed was only $2.45 for each dollar spent," Walt Hickey wrote.
He added, "And while this might be a side effect of films with lower budgets tending to have higher returns on investment than films with higher budgets, it's still a strong indicator that films with women in somewhat prominent roles are performing well."
FiveThirtyEight found that the number of films decisively passing the Bechdel test is below 50%. Recent films that meet the criteria include the hit Disney animated musical "Frozen" and the Lionsgate blockbuster "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire."
The report also examined the widely held assumption that movies featuring women don't tend to perform well internationally, and it found that movies passing the Bechdel test "still have comparable returns on investment when the movies 'travel.'"
The report comes on the heels of a study by San Diego State film professor Martha Lauzen that found a dearth of female characters in recent movies. Among the top 100 grossing films of 2013, only 15% of protagonists, 29% of major characters and 30% of all speaking characters were female.
If Hollywood takes note of the numbers — or, rather, the dollars and cents at stake — those percentages, and the conventional wisdom, might just change.