Bechdel tested: Women talking to each other on screen equals a bigger box office hit, analysis finds

  • @adamsherwin10

Look Who’s Talking? If the answer is women conversing with each other on screen, your film is likely to become a bigger box office hit, a new analysis has found.

The Hollywood convention that cinemagoers prefer movies starring A-list male actors has been challenged by a study which shows that films featuring rounded female characters are actually more profitable.

FiveThirtyEight, the number-crunching blog founded by Nate Silver - the pollster who correctly predicted, state-by-state, the outcome of the 2012 US Presidential election - analysed the ticket sales for 1,615 films released since 1990, categorizing them on the basis of whether they pass or fail the so-called “Bechdel Test”.

Established by American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, to pass, a film must feature at least two women who have a conversation with each other about something other than a man.

The website found that the total median gross return on investment for a film that passed the Bechdel test was $2.68 for each dollar spent. The total median gross return on investment for films that failed was only $2.45 for each dollar spent.

Walt Hickey, of FiveThirtyEight, wrote: “We found that the data doesn’t appear to support the persistent Hollywood belief that films featuring women do worse at the box office. Instead, we found evidence that films that feature meaningful interactions between women may in fact have a better return on investment, overall, than films that don’t.”

Hickey added: “It’s remarkable how many iconic films disastrously fail the Bechdel test.”


Just 53 per cent of films passed, including Disney’s latest hit Frozen. It features two central female characters, Anna and Elsa, discussing the isolationist policies of Arendelle, plans to build a snowman, and the time Elsa locked their civilization in an eternal winter.

The Avengers fails because none of its female characters talk to each other at any point.

However Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, based around the relationship between two sisters, which passes the test, earned $100 million at the box office on an $18 million budget.

The test is not a secure guide to gender equality though. American Hustle passes but only due to a single scene where a con artist’s wife, played by Jennifer Lawrence, discusses nail polish with a politician’s wife, played by Elisabeth Röhm.

Gravity fails, despite delivering a strong female role for Sandra Bullock, since its isolated outer space setting limits her opportunities for female bonding.

Hickey found that the median budget of films that passed the test was substantially lower than that of male-dominated, action blockbusters in the sample or those in which women don’t talk to each other, or talk only about men. But those which passed the test, demonstrating greater female character involvement, were more profitable, dollar-to-dollar.

Hickey argues that his findings should challenge the mentality epitomised by Jeff Robinov, who as Warner Bros president of production decreed in 2007 that the studio would no longer make movies with female leads.

Hickey wrote: “Hollywood is the business of making money. Since our data demonstrates that films containing meaningful interactions between women do better at the box office than movies that don’t, it may be only a matter of time before the data of dollars and cents overcomes the rumours and prejudices defining the budgeting process of films for, by and about women.”

The success of the Twilight and Hunger Games franchises should encourage more films anchored by female leads, Hickey said.

More films are passing the Bechdel test than before, Hickey found but the level has “flatlined at about half over the last 20 years, and women don’t make up any more than 20 percent of producers, directors and writers across the board.”

The blog quotes Krista Smith, West Coast editor of Vanity Fair, who said “Movies that are female-driven do not travel.”

But Hickey responds: “We did a statistical analysis of films to test two claims: first, that films that pass the Bechdel test - featuring women in stronger roles - see a lower return on investment, and second, that they see lower gross profits. We found no evidence to support either claim.

“In other words, adding women to a film’s cast didn’t hurt its investors’ returns, contrary to what Hollywood investors seem to believe.”

Bechdel Test Pass/fails


The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Contains fewer than two named women so fails the test on first criterion. Budget $300m Box office: $1bn

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Kenneth Brannagh blockbuster includes two named women (Katya, a Russian assistant, Kathy, the protagonist’s fiancée) but they do not speak to each other throughout the entire film. Budget $ 60m Box office $134m

The Hangover Part 3

The wives of Doug and Stu are both named and do have a conversation but it’s about Alan, Zach Galifianakis’ character. Budget $103m Box office $362m


Blue Jasmine

Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) and Ginger (Sally Hawkins) have multiple conversations about something other than a man, mostly about Jasmine herself. Budget $18m $100m


Russell Crowe Biblical epic scrapes in due to scene where Noah’s wife Naameh (Jennifer Connolly talks to adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson) about her pregnancy. Budget $125m Box Office $95m (opening weekend)

August: Osage County

Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts head strong female cast in family saga featuring multiple conversations about the character’s relationships, which do not centre on a man. Budget $20m Box office $70m