Among the many, many problems with pervasive reportage of weekend box office is the false sense of blood-sport competition it creates. It’s what happens when ticket sales are framed as box scores, encouraging moviegoers to cheer the “winner” and flee the “loser,” positioning films less as works of art or even snapshots of a culture than as professional wrestlers, talking shit or eating crow. Such juxtaposition is reductive to begin with, collapsing the entirety of a film’s being — its cultural impact, its critical reception, its potential longevity — into a stark, simple number that holds the entirety of its value. But in the wake of a weekend like this one, in which the astonishing success of Pitch Perfect 2 over second-place finisher Mad Max: Fury Road is being classified by industry rags and film bloggers alike as some kind of girl-power rebuke to testosterone-fueled action, such simplistic equivalency isn’t just ignorant, it’s counterproductive.
To be clear, when taken purely as a by-the-numbers proposition, Pitch Perfect 2’s achievement is jaw-dropping. A much smaller movie (it cost $29 million to make, compared to Max’s $150 million), playing on fewer screens (a still-ginormous 3473 to 3702), Pitch Perfect pulled in $70 million — more than the first film grossed in its entire run — to Max’s $44 million. But even as a numbers game, this isn’t the dusting it’s being framed as; as Forbes’ Scott Mendelson notes, Max’s gross isn’t some massive disappointment, but directly in line with the $40 million-ish gross it’d been tracking towards. (Similar numbers were predicted for PP2; it ended up massively toppling expectations.) Add in Max’s $65 million overseas (to PP2’s $27 million), and it’s already topped $100 million. It’s gonna be just fine.
But you can’t just use those numbers to formulate some kind of smash-the-patriarchy narrative, since the movie that Pitch 2 “beat” is about smashing the patriarchy. This isn’t a case of a little movie with a passionate female fan base walloping something like a Transformers installment, which is basically a two-and-a-half-hour mash-up of explosion footage and upskirt videos. Mad Max, to the chagrin of MRAs and similar backwards-thinkers, is (title notwithstanding) the story of a female warrior who rescues a group of sexual violence victims and destroys the man who enslaved them. Even if it had “lost” the weekend by a more embarrassing (or, ultimately, less profitable) margin, that wouldn’t be something to celebrate.
And, by the same token, the scores of men who spent the week cheering Max’s feminist messaging can calm down a bit with the “can’t have nice things” despair over Pitch 2 besting Max domestically. Please note: Pitch Perfect 2 is a film directed by a woman, written by a woman, and in which nearly every important role is played by a woman. However you may land on its quality or appeal, this film’s runaway success is also an undeniably good thing.
But that’s the trouble with how box office match-ups like these are reported — and planned, and marketed. And to be fair, the audience tracking falls roughly along the gender lines these analyses are pushing ( Variety : “The crowd for Mad Max: Fury Road was 70% male, while the opening weekend audience for Pitch Perfect 2 was 75% female”). I’d imagine we’ll see similar pre- and post-game hype on the weekend of June 5, when Spy opens against Entourage, a bout which will be framed as “female movie vs. male movie” but would be more accurately summarized as “movie for everybody vs. movie for douchebags and those who love them.”
Neither Pitch Perfect 2 nor Mad Max: Fury Road “won” this weekend, in terms of beating each other; the winner this weekend, any way you slice it, is the majority of moviegoers who’d like to see a bit less of a gender gap onscreen. And reducing either picture to a simple sexual binary does a disservice to the filmmakers, who both pulled off something that, within the confines of backwards-ass mainstream Hollywood, is truly remarkable.