Edging Out the Boys

It seems both in practice and belief that producers and executives are hesitant to place resources in female-driven movies. By the numbers there are fewer female-led movies and even fewer big-budget, female-led movies.

The rationalization always seems to be that women will see male-dominated movies, but men won’t see female-dominated movies. But is this true? Are you smarter to greenlight male-dominated movies over female? What do the numbers tell us?

Well, let’s start by taking a look at the landscape of films released theatrically. Via IMDB we’re able to pull some metrics as proxies. IMDB lists the top three stars of each movie and from that we can get a gauge on which movies are female led. While it’s not a perfect judge (sometimes the top billed cast aren’t really the most prominent actors and they’re not always listed in order of most prominent, though largely they are), it gives us a decent idea of which movies are female driven. Other studies have looked at the Bechdel test as a proxy, but the reason I like the “IMDB star test” is that it hopefully provides two indicators:

  1. It shows how the film is being marketed, whether the studio is saying this is a movie about women, having women in the lead roles, etc.
  2. It shows who’s top billed. It gives a sense of the hierarchy of the stars. When women are placed in top billed position, it means that they have been selected, in a sense, to outrank other actors.

Let’s look at a set of about 4,000 movies (for which we have budget data) broken down by production budget and gender of the three stars (female driven bolded) to get a sense of breakdown of movies being made by gender:

<$1m $1-$5m $5-$10m $10-$30m $30-$50m $50-$75m $75-$100m $100-$150m $150-$200m >$200m
Male 67.6% 69.7% 75.0% 72.0% 74.3% 83.1% 86.3% 88.3% 92.4% 90.7%
Female 32.4% 30.3% 25.0% 28.0% 25.7% 16.9% 13.7% 11.7% 7.6% 9.3%
3M/0F 24.4% 20.3% 20.0% 19.8% 20.1% 20.5% 27.4% 25.2% 22.8% 20.9%
2M/1F 50.0% 57.1% 53.8% 54.4% 59.1% 66.5% 59.4% 65.6% 64.6% 67.4%
1M/2F 21.7% 18.7% 22.3% 22.5% 19.0% 11.8% 11.3% 8.6% 12.7% 11.6%
0M/3F 3.9% 4.0% 3.9% 3.3% 1.8% 1.2% 1.9% 0.6% 0.0% 0.0% 

On the low budget end, there are about twice as many male-led films being released, whereas on the highest end, it’s about ten times as many. In fact, there are no completely female movies (all 3 stars) above $150 million in the dataset I tracked, while there are clearly a significant number of completely male films (the relative numbers should be telling even if the absolute numbers aren’t completely exhaustive).

It’s not new to say, but this obviously seems pretty ridiculous given that women represent 50% of the population and movie goers.

Well, maybe producers know something we don’t. Maybe female-driven movies just alienate men and, thus, don’t return as well as male-driven movies? Let’s check it out by breaking down the movies not by budget, but by ROI (return on investment, equal to worldwide box office divided by production budget).

In order to get rid of any crazy outliers, I’ve limited it to films with at least $1 million budget and distribution domestically of at least 500 theaters (via Box Office Mojo). I’ve also limited it to films released after 1/1/2000 so we’re not dealing with a completely different movie landscape.

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We see that female led and female majority films tend to have higher percentages of winners and homeruns. One basic barometer is the percentage of films that return less than their production budget–that is, they lose money (anything less than 100% ROI). We can see that female-led films have a lower percentage of films that lose money than male-led films have. That means there are fewer losers with a female lead.

What’s more, check out films that have all three top billed female actors (0M3F). That’s movies where the top three stars are all female. That red bar is by far the lowest. All in all this means that female-driven movies actually have less risk of losing money.

Let’s look at the same chart across various budgets, since we know that female-led movies will be in lower budget ranges.

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On the lower end, the trend holds. This seems logical since most of the female driven films end up being smaller movies.

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But even middle budget movies continue the trend.

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When we eliminate small budget films, you can start to see that gender has less of an impact on returns, though having 3 lead females still has by far the lowest loser rate.

Well, maybe male dominated movies have more huge successes and that compensates for the losers? It doesn’t appear so. If we look at completely male-dominated films (3M0F), we can see that they actually don’t have more homeruns. Again, let’s use 400% as a potential threshold for super successful movies and see what percent of each category makes more than it:

3M/0F 19.6%
2M/1F 21.0%
1M/2F 27.6%
0M/3F 20.8%
Male Lead 21.0%
Female Lead 24.9%

Female films have a higher percentage of super-successful movies. Further, having all female stars does better than all male. Having all male stars, in fact, has the lowest percentage of homeruns.

Of course, one can always argue that fewer huge successes are need at the high-budget level to make up for losses. But the truth is that there aren’t enough female led, high-budget films to get any meaningful answer.

There are lots of ways to look at the financial success of films by gender, and this is just one way. It may be that there’s such an undersupply of female-driven movies that people will go to see them regardless. That could possibly contribute to the financial success of female driven films. But what’s also clear is that there is an incredible dearth of female-driven movies, undeniably so and in such a great magnitude that I think it’s hard to argue that this market is anywhere near saturated.

If we’re talking numbers strictly–and I’m sure producers often cite “numbers” to push male-driven movies through–well, the data actually says we minimize downside risk and increase upside potential when making female-driven movies.

So if we want to be smart about money, we should greenlight as many female-driven movies as we can until the numbers tell us we’ve hit a saturation point, which I imagine is a long way away.

The Black List Interview: Jason Hellerman

Welcome to our newest series on the Black List Blog, The Black List Interview! Every two weeks, we’ll be highlighting a writer who has found success using the site. First up, we’ve got Jason Hellerman. Jason’s script SHOVEL BUDDIES was on the site for nearly a year before it started garnering interest from the industry, and eventually made the 2013 annual Black List. Today, we talk to him about how the past, present, and future have shaped his screenwriting career, and how the Black List helped foster his journey as a writer.

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The Past:

What was the first film that had a major impact on your life?

Growing up my parents usually did Friday Night movies. We’d go to the library during the day and get books and VHS tapes. My parents let my brother and I choose – we picked so many movies based off the cover art and were disappointed but I remember the first time I was completely blown away was with RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. I was maybe five or six and watching a movie with really bad guys, and guns, and girls, and adventure. I wanted it to never end. My parents tried to cover our eyes for the ark opening scene and I still can remember squirming around their hands to see the face melting. By the time we pulled back in the warehouse and saw the thousands of boxes my jaw was on the floor. I’ve watched Raiders at least once a year as long as I can remember, especially before I write something new even if it’s not the same genre because that movie understands what it wants the audience to feel and to me that’s the most important part of writing.

Was there a single film that made you want to be a screenwriter? How else did the decision to pursue that career evolve?

I could loop Raiders in here but I think when I saw that film it made me want to tell exciting stories but early on in my writing journey I never imaged that I would be able to think of stories that big, in that scope. Right when the internet was taking off for me there was this website called Mutant Reviewers from Hell, and they focused on cult films. Their site really opened my eyes to a lot more low budget, aspirational films that I thought, “Man, I can do that!” At the time I was in 8th grade and working at a drug store and CLERKS really spoke to me in an angsty, the world never goes my way, vibe. It was also reflective of a lot of the conversations I’d have with my friends and it didn’t seem that hard to make. As soon as I watched that movie I decided I could try to write some screenplays.

Most writers have to have “day jobs” in order to stay afloat. What was the strangest job you ever had before becoming a writer?

I worked as an assistant for two years moving out here then, because being an assistant is an 80 hour a week job, I had to quit to focus on my writing once I got representation. While we were setting SHOVEL BUDDIES up, I still had to find random ways to pay rent so I’d house sit, walk dogs, cover screenplays, and even do random chores.

The strangest thing I did was start my own business running an eBay store for designer clothing. I knew nothing about designers or labels but I knew people who wanted to sell things they didn’t wear anymore or never wore through my connections as an assistant. I wound up learning a ton, taking a commission, and managing to eek by on my bills while writing new scripts and setting SHOVEL BUDDIES up. I also got some cool pants and shirts out of the deal.

The Present:

How do you find ideas and how do you choose which ones to work on?

I really concentrate on writing movies I want to see. It’s cliche advice, but I think you’ll never make it through a script or keep a deadline on something you don’t have passion about. Aside from that cop out answer, I look at a lot of images on the internet, museums, and read a ton of articles. I wrote a spec last year all after seeing an Andrew Wyeth painting called CHRISTINA’S WORLD. I wanted to write that character, staring off in the distance, and tell her story. The spec I started before writing this is based off my obsession with terrible websites created by conspiracy theorists. I came across them while researching a serious script I wanted to write and immediately changed my idea to focus on these people. They’re terrible, they have a ton of cartoons, grainy photos, and so many “facts” and “theories”- I looked through them and attacked it from “what if this was all real?”

Walk us through a normal day of writing for you. Any special habits to keep the muse happy?

I have a particularly boring routine. I get up around 7am, make coffee, eat a yogurt, and sit in an armchair with my computer in my lap until the coffee runs out. I like writing off an outline or beat sheet so I have that open in Word next to my Final Draft document. I do like to buy different coffee every week so that kind of switches it up and I’ve had every flavor of Fage. Lately, it’s been impossible not to procrastinate at home so I walk to the coffee shop on the corner and do the same thing there. I usually write until noon or 1pm then go for a walk around my neighborhood or run errands. After that I’ll work on the outline so I know where I’m going the next day and if I find energy later in the afternoon or before I go to bed I try to do a writing sprint. One solid hour, phone off, internet off, just hitting the keys. I do listen to music, usually it’s instrumentals that reflect the tone of the piece. I bought noise-canceling headphones that I love last year. I’m writing them off on my taxes.

Which films are keeping you inspired at the moment?

I really dug JOHN WICK – that movie moves so fast, everything is so economical, and they introduce the world flawlessly. I saw it twice in theaters, the second time with my notebook to track the information on the screen and see how they disguise the exposition. The action set pieces also wind up feeling unique – we’ve seen hundreds of hitman movies but this one was special.

I also really admired A MOST VIOLENT YEAR. It was a patient movie that made you wait. Basically the polar opposite of JOHN WICK. They aren’t genres I’m necessarily pursuing now ,but it’s cool to see how masters work with personal stories in different settings. AMVY is about a disruptive marriage at its core. WICK is about dealing with loss when life repeatedly kicks you while you’re down. That’s why I dug Lynn Shelton’s LAGGIES – it could have been such a bad mid-twenties crisis movie but instead it twists and turns itself into something that really meant a lot to me (maybe it’s because I’m about to be 28). It was so good it made me jealous. See LAGGIES. See everything Lynn Shelton and J.C. Chandor do – they’re all personal stories with fantastic settings and they’ll make you want to work harder and take more chances.

The Future:

If you could make one film, with no restrictions in place, what would that film be?

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. I think it’s the perfect story, and as much as I love the Gregory Peck version we’re at a time in cinema history where we can make these movies look incredible, and audiences have a high tolerance for longer versions. I think you could do a great 145 minute film that catches the nuances in the book and gives each story moment time to digest. Imagine magic hour Alabama, with the weeping willows and two kids hiding in the shadows trying to make Boo Radley come out. Totally Amblin. Sissy Spacek doing Scout’s voice-over (she does the audiobook!), you cast unknown kids, and George Clooney as Atticus Finch. Oprah as Calpurnia. Anthony Mackie as Tom Robinson. Jenna Malone as Mayella Ewell. Rainn Wilson as Bob Ewell. John C. Reilly as Boo Radley. I lie awake at night plotting that movie.

What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?

Film Studies Professor at a State University. That was always my backup plan and as much as I want to say chef, professional basketball player, or comedian I think I would be very happy in Film Studies. Those were my favorite classes outside of writing in college and I actually almost went to grad school for film studies. I love breaking movies down, Hollywood history, and tracking specific movements. Everyone loves talking about movies, everyone has a favorite and one they hate. Film really brought art to the masses and as we see the medium expand and influence things like TV, video games, and now digital content it’s incredible to think where film as we know it will be in the next 100 years.

You’re at dinner with three of your favorite writers and/or filmmakers, dead or alive. Who’s coming to dinner? Who picks up the check?

It’ll be me, Steven Spielberg, William Goldman, and Kathleen Kennedy. These are the people who shaped American cinema, wrote, directed, and produced my favorite films, worked in different genres, and had longevity in their careers. We probably make Kennedy pick up the bill since she’s got the new STAR WARS which is going to make billions. Those people are my idols – totally fearless. I’ve been really lucky to have strong mentors since coming to LA and they’d be the icing on the cake. I’d make sure the dinner was multiple courses so we’d have a while to chat.

The Black List:

How did you first hear about The Black List?

I was interning at Scott Free when the Black List website launched. There was a young guy in the waiting room that I brought water, Justin Kremer. He wrote McCARTHY, which was on this site and he was discovered off of it. I asked the receptionist who he was and they were like – he’s the guy who got found off the Black List website. I was on the site five minutes later and I used all the money I got for Christmas that year to list SHOVEL BUDDIES and buy industry reads. I knew I had to take the chance. Best money I ever spent.

Since using The Black List, how has your career been impacted?

I went on the agency and manager water bottle tour, signed, and I’ve been on a ton of general meetings. SHOVEL BUDDIES was picked up by AwesomenessTV. We’re attaching directors and planning to shoot Summer 2015. I have a project being produced by COTA Films and Vertigo called APPARITION, and another Sci-Fi project in the works that hopefully will be announced soon. When people ask me what I do I can tell them I’m a writer and mean it. The Black List helped legitimize me in the Hollywood landscape and got hundreds of people to read my screenplays.

Any tips for writers interested in the site?

Be patient. After spending the money to host my script in December it took until the following October to really break out. I got ratings along the way and industry people contacted me but it took a bit for this script to get noticed by people I felt had a connection to the material. When it took off word of mouth made it catch fire and the site made it popular and easy to find. Keep your loglines concise, write interesting opening scenes, and really take the reader suggestions to heart. They’re there to help you, not hold you back.


Thanks so much, Jason! We’ll be featuring another writer in two weeks.

WGA-W Awards 2015

On Valentine’s Day, I attended the WGA-W Awards in Century City. As an avid watcher of awards shows of all sizes and shapes, it was quite a thrill for me to work my first red carpet, and see a side of the industry I’d not yet experienced.

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Press and media were corralled in one ballroom at the Hyatt, and folks were immediately jockeying for the best positions. In the interest of candor, I should mention that we did not get a spot directly along the red carpet, which will explain the blurriness in some of the photos. Apologies!

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George RR Martin was among the first to hit the red carpet. We heard him dodge several questions about THE WINDS OF WINTER with grace and good humor:

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TRANSPARENT creator Jill Soloway brought her whole staff down the carpet, and they all seemed to revel in their freshman attendance to the awards show:

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Patrick Stewart, the evening’s first presenter, graciously posed for a number of selfies with journalists and fans alike:

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RECTIFY creator Ray McKinnon looks super serious here, but during the show, he and  fellow nominee Kate Powers (nominated for Best Episodic Drama, “Donald the Normal”) and sent in one of the funniest nomination videos of the night:

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Lisa Kudrow brought some patented Valerie Cherish charm and silliness as the evening’s host:

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WHIPLASH writer-director and Black List alum Damien Chazelle kept mum about new projects, preferring to sing the praises of WHIPLASH stars Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons:

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Chazelle’s fellow Black List alums E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, nominated for FOXCATCHER were clearly having a moment on the carpet:

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NIGHTCRAWLER star Rene Russo was thrilled to represent for her husband, writer-director Dan Gilroy:

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Keira Knightley made a brief appearance on the red carpet with THE IMITATION GAME’s writer, Graham Moore. Moore’s script (which was #1 on the 2011 Black List) took home Best Adapted Screenplay from the Guild!:

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MY-SO CALLED LIFE creator Winnie Holzman walked the carpet with one of our favorite movie dads, her husband Paul Dooley. Holzman presented the Paul Selvin Award to her pal Margaret Nagle for THE GOOD LIE:

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Fresh off her Golden Globe win, Sarah Treem was thrilled to be there for her nomination for THE AFFAIR:

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BOYHOOD’s likely Oscar winner Patricia Arquette got flashbulbs flicking, and gave a number of thoughtful interviews:

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The Weinstein Company provided some tasty truffles to attendees, thanks Harvey and Bob!:

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Once the red carpet ended, press headed to a second room where the ceremony was being live-streamed, and winners could choose to appear after receiving their trophies. A number of winners didn’t make it to the press room, unfortunately.


Pamela Adlon accepted Best Comedy Series on behalf of LOUIE, and brought her lovely daughter with her through the winners room:

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Jane Anderson was ecstatic to win for OLIVE KITTERIDGE, and flexed her way past the press:

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Margaret Nagle’s moving speech for THE GOOD LIE gave the evening some necessary gravitas, but she was all smiles in the winners room:

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And finally, after accepting his award from the legendary Lawrence Kasdan, Wes Anderson made his way to the winners room after taking home Best Original Screenplay for THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL along with co-writer Hugo Guinness, who attended the New York ceremony:

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The WGA-W Awards were a lovely way to spend Valentine’s Day. Congratulations to all winners and nominees! Special thanks go out to Jack McDonald for his photography skills, featured in this post.




The Grand Budapest Hotel
Screenplay by Wes Anderson; Story by Wes Anderson & Hugo Guinness; Fox Searchlight


The Imitation Game
Written by Graham Moore; Based on the book Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges; The Weinstein Company


The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz
Written by Brian Knappenberger; FilmBuff


True Detective, Written by Nic Pizzolatto; HBO


“The Last Call” (The Good Wife), Written by Robert King & Michelle King; CBS


General Hospital, Written by Ron Carlivati, Anna Theresa Cascio,
Suzanne Flynn, Kate Hall, Elizabeth Korte, Daniel James O’Connor, Elizabeth
Page, Katherine Schock, Scott Sickles, Chris Van Etten; ABC


Louie, Written by Louis CK; FX


“So Did the Fat Lady” (Louie), Written by Louis C.K.; FX


“Brick Like Me” (The Simpsons), Written by Brian Kelley; Fox


True Detective, Written by Nic Pizzolatto; HBO


Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Writers: Kevin Avery, Tim Carvell, Dan Gurewitch, Geoff Haggerty, Jeff Maurer, John Oliver, Scott Sherman, Will Tracy, Jill Twiss, Juli Weiner; HBO


71st Annual Golden Globe Awards, Written by Barry Adelman; Special Material by Alex Baze, Dave Boone, Robert Carlock, Tina Fey, Jon Macks, Sam Means, Seth Meyers, Amy Poehler, Mike Shoemaker; NBC


Deliverance Creek, Written by Melissa Carter; Lifetime


Olive Kitteridge, Teleplay by Jane Anderson, Based on the novel by Elizabeth Strout; HB


Civil Rights at 50,” Written by Jane Tillman Irving; WCBS Radio


Three Shots Rang Out: The JFK Assassination 50 Years Later,” Written by Darren Reynolds; ABC News Radio


“World News This Week,” Written by Andrew Evans; ABC News Radio


“United States of Secrets: The Program (Part One)” (Frontline); PBS; Written by Michael Kirk & Mike Wiser; PBS


“League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” (Frontline), Written by Michael Kirk & Mike Wiser; PBS


“How I Met Your Mother,” Written by Dan Greenberger; CBS


“Episode 113: Rachel” (High Maintenance), Written by Katja Blichfeld & Ben Sinclair; helpingyoumaintain.com


Hollywood Game Night, Head Writer: Grant Taylor; Writers: Alex
Chauvin, Ann Slichter; NBC


“Haunted Heartthrob” (Haunted Hathaways), Written by Bob Smiley; Nickelodeon


The Last of Us: Left Behind, Written by Neil Druckmann; Sony Computer Entertainment



Nicholl Scripts on the Black List

Come May of each year, the Nicholl fellowship receives thousands of entries from amateur screenwriters for the shot at a $35k fellowship and industry-wide recognition. It’s widely considered the most prestigious competition of its kind in the industry. Plus, if you win, technically you’re well within your rights to say those magical six words: “I’d like to thank the Academy.”

When you upload a script to the Black List, you’re able to add information about whether your script has received any awards; and unsurprisingly, Nicholl semi and quarter-finalists are cited frequently. Let’s just say that if I had a penny for every Nicholl added, I’d have enough to go wild at the Target dollar section.

A while back, we did a quick ratings distribution (from Black List reader evaluations) of Nicholl scripts versus all scripts on the sites. The results aren’t unexpected, but it’s interesting to note that semi-finalists on average scored 0.4 points higher than quarter-finalists, and quarter-finalists on average scored 0.6 points higher than all scripts.

Check out the distribution below — notice that the bell curve shifts to the right as you place higher in the competition.

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Some notes on methodology, potential biases…pretty much whatever else:

  • Placements are self-reported by the writers and thus may be misreported.
  • Each overall rating is counted, including multiple ratings for a single script.
  • Based on 387 semi-finalist ratings, 454 quarter-finalist ratings, and ~25k total ratings.
  • Mean for semi-finalists is ~6.08, for quarter-finalists is ~5.69, and for all ratings is ~5.04.