What's the top-grossing film directed by a woman? (Hint: It's not 'Big' or 'You've Got Mail' or 'It's Complicated,' and it's certainly not 'The Hurt Locker.')
Give up? It's 'Kung Fu Panda 2.' As Entertainment Weekly's Inside Movies blog notes, Jennifer Yuh Nelson's summer 2011 cartoon hit has grossed $637.6 million worldwide, beating the record set by Phyllida Lloyd's'Mamma Mia!' ($609.8 million) in 2008.
EW crunches the numbers to cite other top-grossing movies by women. Biggest domestic hit is 'Shrek' ($267.7 million), co-directed by Vicky Jenson. For a woman directing solo, the top domestic hit is 'Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel' ($219.6 million), directed by Betty Thomas.
Notice something about these top hits? Aside from 'Mamma Mia!', they're all animated or animated/live-action mixes and all for kids. Which is fine; it's great that women, who make up just 7 percent of Hollywood's active directors, are getting to make the kind of family films that are practically a license to print money. But where are the plum jobs for women in, oh, all the other genres?
It seems as if animations and animation hybrids offer the friendliest environment for women directors, as if Hollywood feels that that's a safe zone in which to hand women the keys to the car. Maybe that's because animation is an even more intensely collaborative team effort than most live-action movies. To the industry, it's largely seen filmmaking by committee, especially when working on a sequel or well-established pop-culture property. The task is seen as largely managerial, not auteurist or visionary. (Except, of course, when a visionary male animator like John Lasseter, Brad Bird or Hayao Miyazaki is directing.)
Surely, Nelson, Jenson and Thomas deserve more credit than that. After all, 'Kung Fu Panda 2' got better reviews than sequels usually do. Jenson's live-action debut 'Post Grad' was a sweet, underrated comedy. Thomas has specialized in these kinds of pop culture reboots ('The Brady Bunch Movie,'Eddie Murphy's'Dr. Dolitle,''I Spy'). Still, men with a similar track record of success would be offered pretty much anything they wanted to direct. Women, not so much.
As EW notes, the top domestic hit directed by a woman that doesn't involve talking CGI animals is 'Twilight,' which grossed $192.8 million. Sure, Stephenie Meyer's books were already huge, but Catherine Hardwicke's adaptation of the first novel was not only a smash, but it set the tone for the whole franchise through her visuals and casting choices. And what's her reward? She's canned by the studio because she wants to take her time on the second film and make sure it's good instead of rushing it to capitalize on a hot trend.
It's almost as if Hollywood doesn't trust women with big live-action franchises, like the superhero sagas that are now the industry's bread and butter, or even with smaller genres, like horror movies (which tend to appeal to young women, after all), comedies, or prestige dramas of the sort that win Oscars.
Way back when, Penny Marshall held the record now held by Thomas, when 1988's 'Big' earned $115.0 million in the U.S.. (In today's ticket prices, that'd be $222.9 million, comparable to 'Squeakuel's take.) Her 1992 film 'A League of Their Own' made $107.5 million ($206.5 million at today's prices). But her 2001 film 'Riding in Cars With Boys' flopped, and she hasn't released a movie since.
About the only women directors who can write their own ticket in Hollywood are Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers, who have relatively consistent track records over long periods of time. Kathryn Bigelow may be added to that list, now that she's the first (and only) woman to win a directing Oscar, but only as long as she stays in the narrow field of low-budget war movies and international thrillers.
Given such discouraging stats, it's a wonder women take up directing at all. It helps if you already have a well-established foothold in the business, like actresses-turned-directors Vera Farmiga and Angelina Jolie. Farmiga is earning praise for her directing debut, the newly-released religious drama 'Higher Ground,' and anticipation is building for Jolie's forthcoming debut, the wartime romance 'In the Land of Blood and Honey.' But even if both movies succeed with critics and awards voters, no one expects them to make much money, so it'll still be a struggle the next time either star wants to get behind the camera.
Then again, if they wanted to put Smurfs or talking rodents in their movies, doors would open for them.
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.