Two movies that premiered in November 2013 differed in genre, rating, target audience, and production studio, among other things, but shared two critical features: they were among the most successful movies of the year, and they both had female protagonists. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the sequel to the popular 2012 movie The Hunger Games based off the eponymous book series, stars Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, the tribute from District 12 who must re-enter a sacramental blood contest in the dystopian society of Panem. Frozen, an animated Disney movie loosely based off the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Snow Queen,” features Princess Anna racing to find her sister Elsa to convince her to release the spell that cast the kingdom into eternal winter. Catching Fire and Frozen stand out among Hollywood films because of their female leads, and the scarcity of such movies has illuminated the different marketing methods used to promote these two films. While promotional material for Catching Fire highlighted the central role of Katniss Everdeen in the series and leveraged the popularity of actress Jennifer Lawrence, Frozen was marketed with gender-neutral methods that de-emphasized its princess protagonists.
The marketing of Frozen by Disney Animation Studios illustrates Hollywood’s doubts about the possible success of a female-led movie. Though the movie stars two princesses, the film’s initial trailers played down their roles and the movie’s musical numbers, instead focusing significantly on the antics of the humorous snowman Olaf. While later trailers did show Anna, even the title distanced itself from any fairy tale or princess story audiences might already be familiar with. Disney did this intentionally to appeal to boys, basing their decision on past Disney research reporting that boys do not want to watch movies with the word “princess” in the title. This titling tactic began after Disney’s 2009 movie The Princess and the Frog performed badly at the box office due to, in Disney’s view, its gender-specific title. With its 2010 animated feature Tangled, focusing on Rapunzel, Disney made the title gender-neutral to appeal to boys. Ed Catmull, president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, justified not naming the movie “Rapunzel” to the Los Angeles Times in March 2010 by saying, “We did not want to be put in a box. Some people might assume it’s a fairy tale for girls when it’s not.” Disney maintained the gender-neutral marketing strategy used for Tangled—which was critically acclaimed and successful at the box office—for Frozen. This tactic worked: Frozen took in $93 million in its premiere Thanksgiving weekend, which the New York Times reported was “one of the best Thanksgiving debuts on record,” and Frozen was one of the highest-grossing domestic movies of 2013. Disney’s gender-neutral tactic also succeeded in attracting boys: 43 percent of Frozen’s opening weekend audience was male, compared to 39 percent for Tangled’s premiere weekend.
Disney’s marketing strategy for Frozen reflects a longstanding belief of movie studios that boys will not watch movies with female leads. This has contributed to the scarcity of movies with speaking, leading, or complex female characters. According to a study by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, just 28.4 percent of speaking characters in the 100 highest-grossing American films of 2012 were female, a five-year low. Furthermore, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, founded by Davis in 2004 to change the portrayal of women in children’s media and entertainment, found that only 17 percent of people in group and crowd scenes in movies are women. These statistics are startling because women comprise 51 percent of the population and 52 percent of moviegoers, according to a 2012 study by the Motion Picture Association of America, Inc. These figures have also not changed significantly in decades, illuminating how the Hollywood status quo continues to be a predominantly male silver screen.
The most perplexing fact about the prevalence of movies without strong female characters is that these movies are less successful. The entertainment website Vocativ analyzed the top 50 highest grossing movies of 2013 and found that those that passed the Bechdel Test, which requires that a movie have at least two female characters who speak to each other about something other than a man, made $1.55 billion more than those films that didn’t pass the test. While this should indicate to Hollywood that both men and women want to watch movies with multidimensional female characters, such movies are still in the minority; for example, only 36 percent of the top 50 movies of 2013 passed the Bechdel Test. Hence the marketing of movies still reflects their heavily male composition.
Erin McNeill, a writer on media and childhood and founder of the Media Literacy Now organization, believes that supposed differences in what movies boys and girls want to watch are not based on gender, but rather on the passivity of female leads in children’s movies. “One thing that Hollywood isn’t understanding is that there’s not a huge difference in what boys and girls are interested in because they want to see action. So when you show an active heroine, boys are interested. … [Boys] aren’t interested in princesses because princesses don’t do anything,” she told the HPR. Rebecca Hains, associate professor of media studies at Salem State University and author of The Princess Problem to be released in the fall, agrees that “when boys are disinterested in stories about girls, it’s because honestly, a lot of times, the stories that are peddled to girls rely on stereotypes and the characters aren’t very engaging.” She describes a shift in Disney’s movies, from “family movies” in the 1990s to “princess movies” in the early 2000s when, in her view, the success of its consumer products division with princess merchandise targeted at girls necessitated a change in the content of its movies.
This change in Disney film content reflects the wider Hollywood belief that women and girls are a niche market, meaning that the longstanding, male-focused business model for movies persists as the standard. Stacy Smith, author of the USC Annenberg School study, told the Los Angeles Times in May 2013, “Industry perceptions of the audience drive much of what we see on-screen. There is a perception that movies that pull male sell. Given that females go to the movies as much as males, the lack of change is likely due to entrenched ways of thinking and doing business that perpetuate the status quo.” Since movie studios and producers have profited from these tactics for decades, they are hesitant to change course.
It is impossible to miss the face of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in trailers, posters, or promotions for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Lionsgate Entertainment, which released the movie, faced similar concerns to Disney’s about the gender makeup of the movie’s audience prior to its release since the majority of the audience for the first Hunger Games movie was female. The studio also wanted to attract younger (under 25-year-old) viewers to Catching Fire, as the first movie had mostly older viewers. Lionsgate approached marketing for Catching Fire differently than Disney, highlighting how the movie depicted the tale of an active female protagonist in its promotions. As a result, Catching Fire promotional materials leveraged the popularity of Jennifer Lawrence to attract a wider variety of viewers, as Lionsgate Chief Marketing Officer Tim Palen told the New York Times just after the movie’s premiere. The studio also chose to show the movie in IMAX and feature battle scenes in trailers in the hopes of appealing to men. These tactics paid off: 41 percent of the opening weekend audience for Catching Fire was male, as opposed to 29 percent for The Hunger Games.
Instead of shying away from its strong female protagonist, Catching Fire promotions featured its female lead simply as she is in the movie. The movie’s marketing did not over-or under-emphasize Katniss’ gender but rather focused on the plot and Katniss’ role in it. This direct form of marketing reflects the story’s plot, which, in the words of writer and founder of Reel Girl blog Margot Magowan, has “no sexism. It’s just girls being powerful. It’s girls being half of the characters.” Similar straightforward marketing tactics were used for Bridesmaids, a 2011 hit comedy that made over $169 million in the U.S., and The Heat, a 2013 summer comedy starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy that took in over $134 million, according to Box Office Mojo. Both movies featured their female casts in trailers and thus were automatically assumed to target women because of their female leads. However, they were also marketed to men by, for example, showing trailers during the NBA playoffs and on ESPN, which both have majority male viewership. Even Brave, an animated Disney Pixar film targeted at children that premiered in June 2012 and made over $237 million domestically, did not shy away from showing the action in the story of the female protagonist Merida.
Interestingly, though Lionsgate wanted The Hunger Games franchise to appeal to men more, male viewers are not necessary for the series’ box office success. Scott Mendelson, writer and film critic for Forbes, describes an important shift in the movie industry after the huge success of the Twilight series, which “proved that not only could female-centric films play at the top tier level of would-be blockbuster grossness, but you don’t need boys at all.” A similarly female audience has driven the success of The Hunger Games, leading Mendelson to believe that the series is “doing so well among women that they don’t need men. Any man who goes to see The Hunger Games is just a bonus at this point.” While the series might not need men for the sake of profits, the success of Bridesmaids, The Heat, Brave, and Catching Fire demonstrate that female-driven movies with multidimensional, active women can be blockbusters and, more importantly, can attract male viewers (even if profits would be good enough without them). These movies achieved success not by obscuring the prominence of their female characters and changing their marketing strategies but rather by broadening the targeted audience for their promotions.
Previews of the Future
The differences in marketing for Frozen and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire pose an interesting conundrum. Both gained immense critical and financial success but used different, almost opposite, marketing strategies to achieve it. While Frozen glossed over its female princess leads, Catching Fire showed Katniss Everdeen as the strong female lead she is. Hopes for gender equality in Hollywood point to Catching Fire’s strategy as more promising because it recognizes that women can lead blockbusters and that men will watch movies with strong and active female leads.
However, change in the Hollywood status quo must also come from consumers. In the realm of children’s movies, Margot Magowan places responsibility on parents who choose what films their children see: “Sexist parents don’t take their sons to movies where girls star front and center, whereas parents do assume that girls will go see movies where boys star front and center. It’s up to parents to read their kids books where girls are the protagonists and girls are heroes. They must take kids to movies where girls are protagonists and girls are heroes.” Ultimately, numbers may be what truly drives the shift in how movies with female leads are made and marketed. Scott Mendelson, citing the success of hits like the Twilight series and franchises like Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Avatar, which appealed to women and were wildly successful, puts it simply by saying that “it doesn’t help to not appeal to women. If you want big blockbusters, you must appeal to women.” Box office success may be the message most certain to influence the content and marketing of Hollywood films. In this respect, the success of Frozen and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire will indicate that strong female characters can not only keep audiences in theaters but draw them there as well.