First off: Hi! Long time, no blog. More on that in another post. For now, I want to talk about something that’s gone around the intarweebs in the past few weeks, as The Force Awakens has become a pretty big box office, critical, and fandom juggernaut since its release. (Note that the below contains some spoilers!)
Folks on the side of inclusiveness in SFF have been pointing to the record-shattering monetary take of this film as evidence that yes, people WILL go see a movie whose three main characters are a woman, a black man, and a Latino. (Not to discount the presence of the old-favorite characters; I’ll address that further below.)
Meanwhile, the tooth-gnashing on the “SFF IS, TOO A (cishet, white) BOYS’ CLUB, YOU EVUL INTERLOPERS” has been largely aimed toward discounting this film’s box office performance because, as they argue, there’s an enormous built-in fanbase for this franchise, and the presence of characters from the original trilogy makes it even more appealing to folks who have been fans for decades. People are going to see old friends Han and Chewie again; naturally that’s going to mean more ticket sales, and even more than the prequel trilogy, because it didn’t really have any of our original characters (save Yoda, Baby-Wan, and baby C3P0; the less said about baby Anakin the better.)
Both sides are right, to a degree, but both sides are also operating from a set of inherently flawed data: The idea that current-dollars box-office records have any real value in measuring audience. Let’s therefore get that out of the way before we go analyzing why this movie is making bank, and whether that has anything to do with the race and/or gender of its most-prominent characters.
It’s All About Butts in Seats
First, there’s the issue of inflation. Over on Box Office Mojo, there’s a useful adjusted-gross chart, showing the top 200 (U.S. domestic) movies of all time. To get into the upper reaches of that chart, a modern movie would have to sell a LOT more tickets at their current price to equal the number of tickets sold for older films. (Adding to the heft of some of these earlier films: Theatrical re-releases, which were more common in the pre-cable, pre-VCR era.)
Of course, as ticket prices have grown, so has the number of moviegoers. In 1932, the year chart-topper Gone With the Wind was released, the U.S. population was ~123.2 million. In 1977, when #2 Ep. IV released, it was ~219.7. 2015? A shade more than 320. More butts to go in seats = more tickets sold, theoretically.
Offsetting population growth, however, are two other factors that have become bigger in the last couple of decades:
1. Market dilution. More movie options and therefore fewer people seeing the same movie multiple times. If Gone With the Wind is the only thing you can see, then it’s all you see.
2. Non-theater viewing options. A lot more people these days don’t want to bother with the hassle of going to a theater, and will instead wait for a movie to come out in some other form. This is why the biggest movies these days are large-scale blockbusters: People don’t want to wait months to see a big movie, and they want to see big showpiece stuff in better quality, on a bigger screen, than their home TVs or intarweebs devices can provide.
Therefore, even though population is higher now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that a larger number of the population is likely to see any one particular movie at a theater.
All those factors taken into account, if we really want to measure the success of TFA, we need to compare apples to apples: How many tickets has it sold relative to other movies released within, at least, the DVD era? In other words: How big is this movie now, with modern audiences who have a much greater choice in both entertainment options and how to watch movies?
Let’s go back, then, to our adjusted-gross chart and cut out anything released before, oh, 1998, when DVDs started to become common. (Titanic, released in 1997, was probably the last of the big box-office champs in the pre-DVD era. People saw it repeatedly in the theater because they had little other choice for subsequent viewings.)
That gives us a top-25 chart that looks like this (figures in millions):
- Avatar (2009): ~$837.4
- Ep. I (1999): ~$777.6
- TFA (2015): ~$740.4 (as of Jan. 3)
- Jurassic World (2015): ~$680.6
- The Avengers (2012): ~$661.9
- The Dark Knight (2008): ~$641
- Shrek 2 (2004): ~$611.7
- POTC 2 (2006): ~$556.4
- LOTR: ROTK (2003): ~530.7
- Finding Nemo (2003): ~$530.3
- Spider-Man 2 (2004): ~$518
- The Passion (2004): ~$513
- Ep. III (2005): ~$510.8
- LOTR: TTT (2002): ~$497
- Dark Knight Rises (2012): ~$495.8
- The Sixth Sense (1999): ~$495.8
- HP 1 (2001): ~$481.4
- LOTR: FOTR (2001): ~$471.8
- Transformers: Revenge (2009): ~$464
- Avengers: AOU (2015): ~$460.8
- Ep. II (2002): ~$460.3
- Toy Story 3 (2010): ~$449.5
- The Hunger Games: CF (2012): ~$440
- The Hunger Games (2012): ~$437.9
- POTC 1 (2003): ~$436
Looking at it this way, it’s pretty dang obvious: Even accounting for inflation and everything else, TFA is HUGE, and it’s only been out for a few weeks. It may not quite hit Avatar’s total take (which, to be fair, is boosted by some theatrical re-releases), but it’s certainly going to beat Ep. I without even trying hard. That’s amazing, especially when you account for the fact that TFA already has bootlegs out there on the intarweebs, something that wasn’t really possible in 1999.
So, now that we’ve established that TFA is, in fact, a really, really big movie, let’s dig in further to the question of why, and whether its diverse leads have anything to do with that.
Chewie, We’re Home
Let’s be honest: We all kind of wet ourselves a little bit when we saw that line in the trailer. OMG HAN! OMG CHEWIE! OMG LEIA! Etc. With a nostalgia factor much higher than I-III due to the presence of some of the OT’s main characters, it was probably inevitable that TFA was going to hit big right out of the gate. A lot of people went to see Ep. I to revisit the universe and some of the characters, but it didn’t have quite the same pull that Han Goddamn Solo does. So that’s responsible for the really big early numbers.
What, however, is responsible for the movie’s staying power and the huge fandom response? Ep. I’s attendance dropped off once the nostalgia/curiosity factor had been satisfied. It was a critical disaster and fans generally detested it, so there wasn’t the same kind of repeat business. By the time Ep. II came out, it was met with a collective shrug. TFA has the benefit of better critical reception, which certainly helps, but it also has another benefit: better FAN reception.
That, I think, is where the key to this question lies.
If you’ve seen the movie, you know: The old-favorite characters actually aren’t in it a whole lot, screen-time wise. In fact, we get through a good chunk of the movie before there’s even more than a reference to them. They’re certainly present in the narration: The plot revolves around Luke, General (!) Leia is in command of the Resistance, etc. However, the story isn’t told by them. It’s told by (in order of appearance): Poe, Finn, and Rey. In terms of screentime, it’s mostly Finn and Rey. In terms of narrative structure, it’s mostly Rey. Finn and Poe are there to support her story and get her where she needs to be to find her destiny. She is the awakening of the Force mentioned in the title. Hers is the backstory with all the mystery.
For someone who wanted to see this movie primarily to see old favorites, they may have thought of this as a bait and switch. Go to see old-buddy Han being a charming rogue with a Sasquatch for a BFF and end up having to sit through someone else’s story for most of it? Ugh, right? Only, aside from the people who went into it already pissed off that the biggest head on the theatrical poster belonged to an icky girl, that’s not what happened. Han, Leia, and company may have been the bait to get people in the theater, but the vast majority of those who came out weren’t at all upset about the switch. In fact, millions came away with all-new favorites, and a burning need to find out more about Rey, Finn, and Poe.
Moreover, among these millions of people were ones who were unused to seeing people like themselves positioned as protagonists in movies like this. Many women and PoC SFF fans have of course loved this universe like any other card-carrying geek, but for a lot of us, it was something we liked despite not being well represented in it. We have, after all, had to develop that sense over the many years of not really seeing ourselves in the kinds of stories we like. Finally finding people like us at the center of the story, rather than either side characters or non-existent, lit a fire under us for this franchise that hasn’t been there before. Every nerdy girl of a certain age (and younger, as they get introduced to it) has always loved Leia, but here’s a woman who has agency! Who makes decisions! Who isn’t The Token Chick or whose character arc revolves around romance with the story’s dudes! And the Black kids who wished Lando Calrissian and Mace Windu had had more screen time finally got a chance to watch Finn’s awesome face show up in probably 80% of the movie.
Of course, we haven’t yet seen much in the way of other inclusiveness. Black women, as usual, are basically MIA (Lupita Nyong’o being obscured by CGI), and aside from those watching Finn and Poe’s interactions with slash-colored glasses, we still haven’t seen any on-screen evidence that queer folk exist in this universe. We see a few other non-white people here and there, and Poe does of course have a Latino actor’s face, if no other indication of culture, but that’s about it.
Still, this is a big step in the right direction for this franchise, and all indications are that the next two installments in this trilogy will have at least the same level of inclusiveness, and probably more.
What this means, therefore, is that for every disgruntled sexist, racist fanboy who won’t see this movie more than once, if at all, there are at least two or three women and people of color who are seeing it when they might otherwise have waited, and even seeing it multiple times. Add in the millions of white guys who aren’t assholes and therefore either aren’t bothered by having protagonists of different demographics, or actively welcome it, because having movie casts that look like the world around them is cool, and that’s a whole lot of people who love this movie just the way it is.
The bottom line: Peeling back the other audience-draw factors, it’s clear that at the very least, having protagonists who aren’t white dudes isn’t box-office poison, and it’s actually likely to be bringing in larger audiences.
The conventional box-office wisdom is still true to a point: After years of conditioning, women and people of color will still go see movies that don’t really include them, because that’s still the lion’s share of what’s out there to begin with. It’s also somewhat true that a fair number of white dudes WON’T go see movies that are headed by someone unlike themselves. What this movie’s success is proving, however, is this:
1. There are fewer of those assgasket white dudes out there than their loud whining would seem to indicate. White guys as a demographic group are a minority, after all; white-guy dipshits are an even smaller subset.
2. The dipshits’ lack of attendance (either at all, or repeat business) at a movie without wall-to-wall white guys is offset entirely–and probably even surpassed by–increased interest from the people who ARE being represented. If Geekbro McDuderson only sees TFA once, it doesn’t matter, because a dozen 10-year-old girls are now seeing it multiple times, when they might not have done so otherwise.
It’s indubitable that the Star Wars cachet and presence of old-favorite characters is contributing to the box-office draw of this movie. After all, built-in audience applies to almost every film listed in that top-25 above: It’s either an adaptation or a sequel to something that has a large, existing fanbase, and that’s what brings people in on opening weekend. But the sustained interest and deafening buzz TFA has simply wouldn’t be there if the film weren’t attracting people for reasons other than OMG STAR WARS. This film’s success should be the final blow against the dying wisdom that women and people of color can’t carry big movies. We can, we do, and we are doing it right now.