If you're an actor in possession of lady parts and you want your movies to kill it at the box office, according to the Forbes' 2016 Top Grossing Actors list, there's one clear direction you should be giving your agent. Scarlett Johansson is Forbes' Top Grossing Actor of 2016, for example, and while you might be assuming you should be shooting for Nicole Kidman-esque Oscar nomination territory and filming the sort of tragic films that require you to wear a fake nose and gaze melancholically into the middle distance for 120 minutes, that's not necessarily so. (Though no The Hours shade intended, which, for the record, is a movie I adore). The four female actors who all made it into the top ten — Johansson, Felicity Jones, Amy Adams, and Margot Robbie — all had one thing in common: 2016 was the year they did franchise work.
This isn't exactly an obvious direction to go in if you're a woman and in the industry. After all, just two years ago, Marvel Studios landed in hot water for their president saying that a movie with a female lead was a "hope" rather than an intention for them (a retro attitude to the sexes that's something that's something of a pattern for Marvel) while Star Wars' lack of female roles in the original trilogy was satirized in one sly New York Magazine video last year that noted that the lines of all the female characters who weren't Leia could be compiled in one clip less than 90 seconds long. On top of that, top grossing doesn't mean top pay; Johansson was only third on that Forbes list, behind Jennifer Lawrence and Melissa McCarthy.
And yet, this year, franchises seemed to be a great shortcut for proving to Hollywood what we've all known for years: women are box office draws.
All the same, it bears clarifying: aside from Jones, none of the actors above did just franchise work. Johansson, who made a worldwide box office revenue of $1.2 billion, played the Black Widow in Captain America: Civil War "plus an ensemble role in the much less commercial Hail, Cesar!" Similarly, Adams grossed $1.04 billion for Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice plus Arrival, a brainy sci-fi thriller with a 94 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. And while Robbie made a memorable appearance in Suicide Squad, the $1.1 billion she generated was in part thanks to Legends of Tarzan.
Still, the Forbes list implied in its descriptions that the bulk of the box office figures generated were thanks to the actors' franchise work. Johansson's role in Hail, Cesar! is prefixed with the term "the much less commercial," implying it lacks the financial oomph that her Black Widow role has. Out of the $1.1 billion Robbie pulled in, Forbes emphasizes "Suicide Squad grossed $745.6 million" (so, roughly three quarters). The film that put Jones on the list, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story only came out in December "but already grossed over half a million."
So, yes, franchises don't have a great history in their attitudes to representing women, but 2016 was the year this changed. Admittedly, it wasn't all good: the female Ghostbusters' box office performance made the chance of a sequel unlikely. But, as the Forbes list has testified, more traditional franchises showcased the magnetism of their female stars. Sure, four out of 10 names on the top grossing actors' list being women isn't equality — but it's not far off. And if Johansson is now the surest bet in the world for making a profitable film, that long sought-after Black Widow solo movie is probably going to be announced any day now.