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April 06, 2014 8:44 PM FiveThirtyEight analysis: movies that pass the “Bechdel test” for female-friendlly content are more likely to turn a profit

By Kathleen Geier

You’ve probably heard of the Bechdel test. It’s a criterion to evaluate how female-friendly a movie is that was created by the cartoonist and memoirist Alison Bechdel. To pass the test a movie has to have: 1) two female characters that 2) have names and 3) have a conversation with each other about something other than men.

You’d be surprised how many films resoundingly fail the test.

Over at Nate Silver’s new site, FiveThirtyEight, they’ve done something really intriguing. For a piece written by Walter Hickey, FiveThirtyEight’s data crunchers have analyzed 1,794 films released between 1970 and 2013 to analyze their profitability. The justification Hollywood gives for making so few female-centric films is that such films do poorly at the box office. If that’s the case, then it’s likely that the films that fail the Bechdel test — that are far more male-oriented — would be make more money.

The results of the FiveThirtyEight analysis were eye-opening. First, as noted, it is shocking how few films actually passed the Bechdel test, which is about as minimal as you can get so far as female-oriented content is concerned. The FiveThirtyEight analysis found that only 53 percent of films passed the test, and that a “surprisingly large” percentage of films — about a tenth — have either none or only one named female character in the cast. Also, although the percentage of films passing the Bechdel test grew over the period in question, for the past 20 years or so the pass rate has been about the same — a little over 50 percent.

The FiveThirtyEight team also performed a statistical analysis to see if the films that passed the Bechdel test brought in a lower return on investment or a lower gross profit than those which didn’t. Their results showed a decisive “no” on both counts. They even went a step further and broke down the numbers to look at international box office receipts, since Hollywood believes that female-oriented films don’t make money overseas. They found that that myth doesn’t hold up, either. The Bechdel-approved films had “comparable returns” internationally.

These results are encouraging, and you’d hope they’d lead to some changes in the way Hollywood does business. After all, the data doesn’t lie, and the only thing Hollywood really cares about anyway is the bottom line, right? Writer Hickey ends on a hopeful note:

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 rumors and prejudices defining the budgeting process of films for, by and about women.

I wouldn’t bet on it, however. Surely it can’t have escaped many a Hollywood executive over the years that many female-oriented films do well, and that courting female audiences might be a savvy business strategy. Some other complicated sociological and psychological phenomenon likely explains Hollywood’s aversion to producing female-friendly movies. Prejudice is not rational, and institutions that suffer from systematic bias often produce suboptimal outcomes — outcomes that don’t make sense from an economic perspective. But perhaps some of the shrewder Hollywood types will be able to use these figures to help push for a change in the way Hollywood does business. Let’s hope so.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

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