Hollywood’s latest twist on reboots: flipping male roles to female

All-woman Ghostbusters, Ocean’s Eleven remake with actresses taking the men’s parts – it’s a ploy to refresh old ideas, and a way of putting more women in leading roles, something many see as long overdue

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 November, 2016, 6:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 November, 2016, 6:00pm

In November 2014, then Sony chief Amy Pascal sent an e-mail to the team behind their planned Ghostbusters reboot.

“I saw [Jerry] Weintraub last night and he told me that he and [Warner Bros.] were doing a female version of [Ocean’s Eleven]. We gotta beat everyone,” Pascal wrote.

The twist on their new Ghostbusters, of course, was that it was to star women as the paranormal hunters instead of men.

Director Paul Feig e-mailed back: “Oh, sure, now they’re doing one. Although I am worried it’s going to conflict with my all chimp Robin and the 7 Hoods.”

Pascal: “It’s like everywhere you turn around, everyone just realised women are half the population of the world.”

Indeed, Hollywood has turned to gender swaps as the latest ploy to refresh dusty movie properties. If audiences are growing tired of reboots – whether traditional (name the Spider-Man), meta ( 21 Jump Street ) or revisionist ( Magnificent Seven ) – why not play around with gender? And it’s no surprise that in a business that makes a disproportionate number of films starring and about men, flipping means more female roles.

Now it’s clear, Ghostbusters was just the beginning. There’s that female-led instalment of the Ocean’s Eleven series on the way, Ocean’s Eight starring Sandra Bullock, Anne Hathaway, Cate Blanchett and Rihanna. Also in various stages of development: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels with Rebel Wilson, a Rocketeer reboot with a female lead, and in a reverse flip, a Splash remake with Channing Tatum as the mermaid.

Flipping is finding its way to the small screen, too, with projects such as Twist, described as a “sexy, contemporary” take on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist starring a woman.

The gender-swapping of film characters before the cameras roll, however, is nothing new. Sigourney Weaver’s character in Alien was originally envisioned as a man. The same for Angelina Jolie’s role in Salt, Sandra Bullock’s in Our Brand Is Crisis , Jada Pinkett Smith’s in Magic Mike XXL and Tilda Swinton’s in Doctor Strange . His Girl Friday’s Hildy Johnson, immortalised by Rosalind Russell, was written as a man in the play The Front Page.

What’s new, as Fandango correspondent Alicia Malone points out, is taking entire casts and flipping them in already proven properties.

For the creative minds behind the projects, it’s a no-brainer.

“It makes a lot of sense,” says Ron Howard, who directed the original Splash and is producing the remake. “The entire community and the medium [are] looking for opportunities to do two things: one is to refresh ideas that people already know something about – titles that they already understand, relate to, remember [and] have a fondness for. And then also find better roles for women, create better roles for women.”

As with many spin-offs, reboots and sequels, some will always seem more natural than others. O cean’s Eight, for example, isn’t considered by its studio to be a gender swap or a remake at all, just an extension of the established world.

“We are really committed to creating more opportunities for women in the film business,” says Greg Silverman, Warner Bros.’ president of creative development and worldwide production. “This one just felt so organic and so right for the brand that this is where it would go next.”

Silverman, however, doesn’t necessarily see the gender-swapped casts as a broad industry trend. He also noted that Warner Bros. doesn’t have a “strategy of flipping franchises either way”.

Whether gender swapping is organic, gimmick or studio strategy, screenwriter Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith, whose Expendables spin-off Expendabelles has been on and off for years, is optimistic that it can be a means to an end.

“If that’s how we’re going to be able to write a kick-ass female action comedy and this is the title we use and this is our kick-off point, then let’s go for it,” Smith says. “The most important thing is: how can we put more films out there that feature smart, funny, strong and fiery women? However it takes to get there.”

Fandango’s Malone is reserved about what flipping might mean in the long run. That it gets this much attention, Malone says, “shows just how rare an all-female cast is in Hollywood”.

There’s the financial aspect, too. This summer’s Ghostbusters failed to impress at the box office. With a reported US$144 million budget (not including marketing expenses, which can sometimes equall the cost of the film) the would-be “biggest franchise in Hollywood” has made only US$128.3 million domestically and US$100.8 million internationally. It’s not a flop, but it’s not a blockbuster, either.

The problem is that the femaleness of a project is sometimes used as a scapegoat for box office disappointments and there’s a worry they may all go away if one fails.

At the heart of it all lay the dreary statistics about leading female roles.

“The Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film found that out of the top 100 grossing films in 2015, just 22 per cent had female protagonists. This is a 10 per cent rise from 2014, but still a big imbalance,” Malone says. “It’s not the ultimate fix Hollywood needs to correct the huge gender inequality in American movies ... but it’s a start, a temporary stopgap to ensure more women are on screen.”