Passengers, Sony’s much hyped sci-fi romance blockbuster, has been in gestation for close to a decade in Hollywood. The script by Jon Spaiths was bandied around various industry professionals for many years after appearing on the Black List for most talked about undeveloped scripts, and it was on the strength of that script that Spaiths landed major screenwriting gigs on Prometheus, Doctor Strange and the upcoming remake of The Mummy. The film finally made it to the big screen last week, with two of Hollywood’s most popular actors at the helm: Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. In a month where its competition included Rogue One, Assassin’s Creed and Sing, many considered Passengers to be a test of the box office power of A List names in an ever-evolving industry where big name franchises have more clout than the actors below the title. What it ended up being was a firm example of how women consumers often hold the key to profit, and what happens when they turn away from your project in droves.
While reviews were mixed to negative, what stood out the most amidst the discussions of Passengers was the near-universal condemnation of its central plot point, which had been obscured in the marketing. Whereas the trailers play the story as two strangers on a spaceship who wake from hibernation 90 years too early and fall in love while trying to discover why they were woken up, what actually happens is that Chris Pratt’s character wakes up early alone, and after a year of smothering loneliness and obsessing over Jennifer Lawrence’s still dormant character, he wakes her up. This effectively traps her in a life she did not choose, yet the film seems unwilling to fully acknowledge or dissect the troubling gender dynamics and rape culture at play. This insidious decision Pratt makes, to remove Lawrence’s choice from the equation for his own selfish means, is played more for romantic tension than the real horror of the situation. Critics didn’t ignore this, and it didn’t help when director Morten Tyldum insisted the film was a great romance and Pratt’s character’s decision is one he too would make in that situation. Potential audiences responded accordingly, by not seeing the movie.
Passengers missed its projected $50m opening week by a sizeable margin, and will probably be written off as a flop by current industry standards (films generally need to make two and a half times their budget to break even). Yet there’s been little discussion of the reasons why it will underperform, and the specific gender dynamics at play, both in terms of economics and storytelling. Clearly the reviews and the reveal of that creepy twist played a part in audiences rejecting the film, but there doesn’t seem to be much mainstream industry discussion on why those audiences said no, as noted by Abigail Nussbaum.
This was a film that, while not solely marketed to women, relied heavily on spreading the ‘Titanic in space’ comparison through its publicity, and focusing on the supposed red-hot chemistry between its leads. All of that was clearly intended to draw women in – the same women who repeatedly paid to see Titanic or Lawrence in The Hunger Games. Particularly in the current political climate, many women are tired of having to confront rape culture daily, and have no desire to see it played as a romantic gesture in popcorn fare. With progressive activism and fan culture converging more frequently in the social media age, and work such as #OscarsSoWhite forcing much needed changes in the industry, a rejection of Passengers and what it stands for has real power; power that’s being ignored.
So far, I’ve seen the failing of Passengers be explained in a number of ways: One, as an example of the problems of relying on so-called A List actors to bring in the audiences without a recognizable brand name in the title, which could have some truth. The staggering cost of the project – $150m after its original budget was set at $90m – may not have helped, but most infuriatingly, I’ve seen Jennifer Lawrence’s salary – $20m, which is pretty much par for the course with major male stars – blamed for the box office numbers. Women can’t get credit for making a movie successful but you damn well better believe they’ll be blamed for it failing.
Women of any kind don’t generally get to be seen as the desired demographic, nor are they viewed as a ‘typical’ geek fan in the way young white men are. The trope of the nerd still fits a very male mould, even though women make up the majority of moviegoers and TV viewers. Fandom spaces are also generally considered women dominated, particularly in fanfiction and cosplay circles. This is a huge, very hungry audience with masses of disposable income, yet their habits and preferences don’t seem to be at the forefront of Hollywood planning, even though it would be massively beneficial for them.
The pulling power of women as consumers and fans has consistently been dismissed or just completely ignored. Justifications will always be found to explain away the successes of women-driven projects, particularly if the core audience is teenage girls. If the quality of the material can also be brought into question, all the better because then not only can you accuse women of having no power; you can accuse them of having no taste. Twilight and its sequels made hundreds of millions of dollars but that had nothing to do with women; that was just because the books were popular. Same for Fifty Shades of Grey, Pitch Perfect and its sequel, The Hunger Games, the work of Melissa McCarthy, Trainwreck, Bad Moms, and even Mad Max: Fury Road. The past couple of years alone have shown that women will go to the cinema for the things that they love, yet that power is seldom given its due. Anyway, when those films led by women are a success, they just take that as an excuse to get rid of the women and replace them with men (Bad Dads, anyone?)
As long as Hollywood views the Default Viewer of its movies as a cishet white guy aged between 18 and 49, the same films and the same problems will keep coming back to our screens. The majority of movies will still be written and directed by that demographic, and the projects will be greenlit by studios and producers who all look like that. Change is happening but, as with everything in Hollywood, it’s maddeningly incremental, so I don’t expect any truly valuable lessons to be learned from the rejection of Passengers by the audience it so desperately coveted, but female heavy audiences will always be savvier than they’re given credit for. If Hollywood wants our money, it has to learn what we actually want.