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Hollywood is leaving money on the table by not marketing more movies to women

Yellow female symbols fill a popcorn bucket while a hand reaches in to grab one.

Illustration by Robyn Phelps / Shutterstock / The Current

On paper, 2023 seemed like a banner year for women in film.

Barbie, directed and co-written by Greta Gerwig, was the biggest movie of the year with over $1.4 billion in global ticket sales. Taylor Swift’s The Eras Tour became the highest-grossing concert film of all time, with $261 million worldwide. The romantic comedy Anyone but You, released in December, has soared past expectations with over $200 million globally off a $25 million budget. This year, too, got off to a solid start with Mean Girls, which has crossed $100 million at the global box office.

If these films are any indication, theatrical movies with female protagonists and/or women behind the camera that have substantial marketing campaigns geared toward women can drive impressive revenue for movie studios. Hollywood might be leaving money on the table by not making and marketing more movies for and by women.

“If you disregard female audiences, you do that at your peril,” says Paul Dergarabedian, a Comscore senior media analyst.

Sure, not every movie has the marketing budget of Barbie, which was reportedly $150 million. But the film is a good example of allocating the budget in the right places to reach the appropriate audience, from notable brand collaborations to data-inspired activations. In the case of Mean Girls, Paramount launched an out-of-home campaign by plastering commuter buses with the tag “Look both ways, Regina.” The movie also collaborated with Malibu on pink strawberry-flavored drink recipes.

Dergarabedian says the best marketing campaigns are “everywhere all at once.”

These campaigns compelled women to come out to theaters in droves. According to Screen Engine and Comscore PostTrak audience polling data, The Eras Tour audience during its first week of release in the U.S. was nearly 80% female; that number was between 65% and 75% for Mean Girls, Barbie and Anyone but You.

Studies suggest there’s room for improvement

But even in a year where Barbie dominated the zeitgeist, Hollywood still seems to be struggling to fully capitalize on female moviegoers.

A new study by USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that 30% of the top 100 films at the theatrical box office in 2023 featured a female lead or co-lead, down from a record-high 44% in 2022.

Behind the scenes, women accounted for just 16% of the directors of the top 250 highest-grossing theatrical movies of the year in the U.S., down 2 percentage points from 2022, according to a new report from San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.

A previous study by the center indicated that women behind the camera can start a chain reaction. In 2022 films with a woman director or writer, 56% featured female protagonists. In films with only male directors and writers, 23% of protagonists were women.

“In this way, the sex of the director matters,” Dr. Martha Lauzen, founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, tells The Current. “These directors are more likely to feature female characters in their narratives.”

Women showed they can be a commercial boon

Last year was clearly a one in which women showed their commercial power, and not just at the movie theater.

Stanley, the water-bottle brand that’s over a century old, started marketing to women for the first time in recent years. In 2022, sales doubled from the previous year, to $402 million, largely thanks to the “Quencher” cup marketed to women. Then sales were projected to grow 86% in 2023, to $750 million. Another example: The National Football League saw increased viewership and growing interest from women this past season after leaning into Taylor Swift’s relationship with Kansas City Chiefs player Travis Kelce.

The biggest question now is: Will Hollywood take note?

It might start with putting more women behind the camera. Then it takes marketing that resonates.

“One of the reasons we watch movies is to see ourselves and our life experiences reflected on screen,” Lauzen says.