There’s no question that Lionsgate’s Hunger Games franchise is a massive box office success, taking over where the Harry Potter and Twilight films left off. Thankfully Hunger Games has more in common with the former series than the latter, and that’s at least partially due to the charisma, acting talents, and all-around awesomeness of series star Jennifer Lawrence. In fact, the latest Hunger Games installment, Catching Fire, ended the year strong, surpassing Iron Man 3 as the biggest box office earner of 2013 here in the States (Tony Stark still wins internationally, with a ridiculous $1.2 billion worldwide). But there’s one other accomplishment that is just as impressive, if a bit sad. Journalist Mark Harris recently pointed out that Catching Fire is the first film with a solo female lead to top the annual box office since either The Exorcist or Funny Girl, depending on how picky you want to be. Those films, for the record, came out in 1973 and 1968, respectively.
Either way, that’s pretty depressing, if not entirely surprising. As Buzzfeed points out, there have been top earners that featured prominent female characters, such as the Harry Potter films’ Emma Watson or Avatar’s Zoe Saldana, but those were, at best, co-leads, and you’d have to really reach to suggest that either was the primary focus of those stories. Hunger Games has a large cast of characters, but it is clearly and indisputably Katniss Everdeen’s story.
The footnote we have to add to that headline up top involves how picky you want to get when it comes to the notion of a “female-led” film. Linda Blair’s Regan is the black heart of The Exorcist, and her performance is the main attraction of William Friedkin’s film, but is Regan really the protagonist? Or should that claim go to her mother, played by Ellen Burstyn, or to the exorcists of the title, Max von Sydow’s Father Merrin and Damien Karras (Jason Miller)? On the other hand, Barbara Streisand is most definitely the star and protagonist of Funny Girl. But either way you cut it, Catching Fire has checked off a major achievement, while simultaneously highlighting the disparity between the genders when it comes to American box office success.
The good news is that 2013 has had more than its share of female-led success stories. Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock as astronaut Ryan Stone, defied expectations and totalled a whopping $256 million in the States, $670 million worldwide. And with two more Hunger Games to come this year and next, the franchise will undoubtedly cross further box office boundaries before it’s done.