Nate Silver: movies that pass Bechdel test have a better ROI

Once upon a time when I was an aspiring screenwriter, I wrote stories that centered on women or at least included them, and Hollywood explained to me that if women characters did anything that didn’t revolve around male characters, it would cause a movie to bomb. It wasn’t their fault, they said; it was the audience. I was assured there were reams of hard data to prove this belief, and “you can’t argue with numbers.”

Had I believed their claims about the audience’s backward thinking, I would have stuck around, making my lead characters all square jawed white dudes while trying to break smaller barriers with my female characters. I would have tried to educate that knuckle-dragging audience slowly, without bombing any films. But I’d grown up around boys and men who talked a lot of sexism and even misogyny, and I had noticed how not a one of them let women leads stop them from enjoying good movies. I repeatedly asked for hard data and was repeatedly directed to box office figures that really said nothing either way about audience gender preferences.

I’d also grown up around extreme fundamentalists and knew a dogmatist when I saw one. So I gave up my dream, left the film industry and eventually started this site.

Knowing you can indeed argue with numbers if you have contradictory data based on better methodology, I presented what little I could. We looked at how action films with female leads seem to do better when the female lead isn’t dressed particularly sexy. We talked about William Goldman’s thoughts on the myth of the “fluke”, that movie that does well “despite” having a female lead or four. We looked at how the numbers get reinterpreted to perpetuate the myth that audiences don’t want women. We noted when demographics showed that 55% of moviegoers are women, and maybe this is where I stated the problem best:

It’s not that we don’t generate the numbers – see above. It’s that no matter what numbers we generate, the film industry is working from a data set which assures them it’s just not possible that women are actually worth appealing to – and once you’ve eliminated the impossible, you consider the improbable. Hollywood has always managed to find any number of improbable scenarios to explain away the (im)possibility that women are consumers and somebody ought to want our money.

I had done what I could. I didn’t have the resources to commission someone of great repute to crunch the numbers realistically… and even if I had, it could have been argued that their findings were influenced by me because I was footing the bill. I’d shouted loudly and told my story, and it had been mentioned by some fairly significant news outlets. And Hollywood had eventually changed a tiny little bit as they saw success in Twilight and The Hunger Games.

But the other day, epic levels of validation arrived in a way I’d never expected. (Thanks, SunlessNick, for sending me the link!)

FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver’s outfit, with their proven reputation for meaningfully crunching data and statistics to get at what’s really going on, took a look at Hollywood’s claims that audiences prefer movies that marginalize more than half the species. They found that movies which pass the Bechdel test actually cost less to make and earn more at the box office, internationally as well as domestically, than their more male-dominated counterparts. Variety’s reporting this, too. If this doesn’t get people in Hollywood to reconsider their entrenched beliefs, nothing will. But then, Hollywood isn’t doing so well financially for lots of reasons, so if they don’t take a long hard look at all their entrenched beliefs, they will probably get replaced by something from the 21st century.

Now, as we’ve discussed, the Bechdel test is not so much a test to be passed as a startling metric which points out a systemic problem. It’s gobsmacking to realize just how few movies feature the extremely common reality of (1) two identified women (2) talking to each other (3) about something other than a man. And the reason it’s so rare in movies is that female characters are not seen as having anything to contribute to the plot independent of male characters. It’s not that every filmmaker should go insert a scene in which Barb and Deb discuss a shoe sale; it’s that maybe Barb and Deb should actually be part of the story in the first place – or else not be there at all. That is the fundamental issue the Bechdel test exposes for discussion.

As far as I’m concerned, the discussion about the numbers you “can’t argue with” is closed, and we won, and Hollywood lost. Nate Silver has spoken. Anyone who refutes him will be associated with the embarrassing spectacle of Karl Rove claiming a Romney victory based on numbers that even Fox News staff knew were wrong.


  1. Alex says

    You should also check out this page breaking down box office for 2013 alone. Turns out at the time of writing, Bechdel movies made 4.22 billion while non-passing movies made 2.66 billion.

    Anyway, while I’m not advocating the weaselly ways Hollywood excludes women, what I’m wondering is how much of this is because of grossly underserved markets. After all, Stephenie Meyer and Tyler Perry certainly didn’t get where they are by kicking and scraping through an insurmountable deluge of weekly major release movies targeting teenage girls and African-Americans, respectively.

    For simplicity, we’ll ignore audiences that will see either gender (which is probably nearly everybody that isn’t a heavily-politicized gender ideologue) as well as pretend all movies can be defined as intended for one gender or the other (patently false, but it makes the below statistics easier). Let’s say of the people that are hardline in favor of one protagonist’s gender or the other and will not watch a movie that does not fit, the split is 70% male and 30% female. Now, while I don’t know the exact number, I wouldn’t be surprised if Hollywood’s output is 95% male, 5% female.

    Even if there are more people that will only go see a movie if a man is the main character, there is way too much product for them to see all of them. Assuming we define a major release as playing on 1000 or more screens at its peak, 2013 had 135 releases, with 128.25 movies for men. That’s ~2.46 movies a week; only people doing professional film analysis and hardcore cinephiles see that much product and they make up so little of the population, their effect is negligible. However, if only 5% of the movies are for women, that comes out to 6.75 total movies in 2013; just a little more than one every two months. The average person can easily see that many movies in one year, so most of the 30% will see all of them. This could easily result in a higher on-average spike than a group 2.33 times larger has on 19 times as many movies.

    The only way we could find out the audience gender preferences is by putting out an equal amount of equal-quality product with equal advertising placement and crunching the numbers from there, but so long as the majority of studio executives, producers, directors, and writers are men and most of them only want to be involved in male-fronted projects, they could be making a guaranteed billion from every female-fronted movie at a quarter the budget and still not do it because contrived reasons.

  2. SunlessNick says

    “you can’t argue with numbers.”

    When I first heard about this study, that was the sentiment that went into my head first: defenders of the status quo are always saying that numbers don’t lie – but they take it on faith that the numbers agree with them.

  3. Red says

    I like Nate Silver even more now. i really, really do. :)

    Wonder how many will takes his estimates as a ‘challenge’ and work on creating films that not only pass the test, but SURPASS it.

  4. Angry Millenial says

    Um, because movies with pass the Bechdel test are better movies, and people like to see better movies.

    Don’t think this required a statistical analysis, but thanks all the same Mr Silver. Am not optimistic that this will lead to any improvements in Hollywood, but a girl can dream.

  5. Jean Lamb says

    Yeah, because movies like The Heat and Bridesmaids never made any money. Or Brave, or Frozen…you’d think this would start a real trend here, but alas you would be wrong.

    Let’s all learn how to make bad videos with our smartphones, get panned mercilessly on YouTube…and learn how to make good ones. Let’s face it, being bad never stops most guys from posting…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *