Despite boasting Angelina Jolie, a $180 million budget and one of the most famous names in fairy tale lore, Maleficent entered theaters May 30 amid a swirl of skepticism.
Would Jolie's four-year absence from the big screen hurt the movie's debut, analysts pondered. Would kids remember Maleficent from her 1969 roots in Sleeping Beauty? Most pressing, pundits asked: Would boys turn out for a modern-day fairy tale?
The boys did turn out — and they weren't that critical. The film was an overwhelming No. 1, earned $20 million above expectations and became the biggest hit of Jolie's career.
It also underscored a Hollywood gender bias that some scholars and analysts say is training girls to settle for male-geared movies, much like their grown-up counterparts.
"No one is asking whether girls will turn out for a comic-book movie; the assumption is yes," says Wheeler Winston Dixon, a film professor at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. "We are socializing young girls that this is how the movies are. Women make up an enormous percentage of moviegoers but their role is marginalized in movies, particularly in summer."
Indeed, though new data by the Motion Picture Association of America indicates that women and girls make up 52% of the American moviegoing public, just a fraction of films are geared toward them.
Of the top 10 movies of 2014, only No. 6, Divergent, is anchored by a female.
And a recent analysis by online trade publication The Wrap finds that of the 39 big-studio releases that were planned for this summer, only Jupiter Ascending, which was originally set for a July 18 release but has been pushed to February 2015, has a female director, Lana Wachowski, along with her co-director brother Andy Wachowski.
The trend, analysts say, comes despite evidence that female-friendly films can be goldmines. This weekend's The Fault in Our Stars scored a stunning No. 1 with $48 million. Still, Hollywood primarily courts boys.
"The summer is nearly always testosterone-driven," says Paul Dergarabedian, box office analyst for Rentrak. "But look at franchises that are flexing their muscles: The Hunger Games, Twilight, Divergent. There's an untapped market with unbelievable potential."
Not that studios aren't looking for their next young-adult hit. This weekend's $12 million Stars, based on the popular book about a romance between two young cancer patients, crushed Tom Cruise's $178 million sci-fi extravaganza Edge of Tomorrow. And on July 25, Scarlett Johansson tries her hand at a solo action hero in Lucy, Luc Besson's story about a woman-turned-warrior. A month later, Chloë Grace Moretz anchors If I Stay, about a girl whose life is changed after a car accident.
Still, observers are puzzled by the paucity of offerings for girls, particularly given the success of female-led movies: Last year's Frozen and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire were two of the three top-grossing films of the year, earning a combined $824 million. The next Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I opens Nov. 21, with Jennifer Lawrence returning in the starring role.
"While the guys are home playing video games and surfing the Internet, the ladies are making an event of going to the movies," Dergarabedian says. "Look at Sex and the City and Magic Mike. These are girls' nights out, and there's business to be done outside of just comic book movies."
Speaking of which: "How do we not have a Wonder Woman movie?" asks Dixon, who teaches a course on superhero films. "There's a huge fan base, of males and females. But women are ignored by the superhero system."
Dixon says the bias is a byproduct of an industry dominated in all other realms by one gender. "If your film is directed by a man, shot by a man, acted by a man and distributed by men, whose bias is it going to reflect? It's easy to see, but it's been entrenched and accepted for too long."
But Brad Ricca, author of Super Boys, about the creators of the Superman comics, says that's selling females short.
"Superhero movies absolutely appeal to girls and women," says Ricca, who teaches film at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "Just because the protagonists are generally male doesn't mean the films are marketed to boys."
In fact, he says, "these recent films are being marketed to girls. A major selling point of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is the off-screen romance between stars Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, which commercials for the movie were focused on. We didn't even see some of the major villains in the trailers, which would be easy marks for eager comics boys."
Even Disney executives, who distributed Maleficent, concede the scheduling vacuum for female fare was a no-brainer, pundits notwithstanding.
"As you think of what's available this summer, you have Captain America, Spider-Man, Godzilla," says Dave Hollis, Disney's president of distribution. "They have a certain, well, male feel. A rock-'em-sock-'em nature. We saw a need for relief, palate-wise."
But will Hollywood's taste change permanently?
"It can take the business a while to catch up," Dergarabedian says. "But you can't deny what's happening in theaters. Studios that ignore the phenomenon do so at their own peril."