Ever since Bridesmaids crashed the box office in 2011, proving you didn’t need Carrie Bradshaw or Angelina Jolie’s fight choreographer to tell a story about women that could make a whole bunch of money in theaters, there’s been some hope of a sequel. But a profile of star Kristen Wiig in Harper’s Bazaar suggests that hope has been in vain. “We would have made a lot of money if there was a second one, but that’s not my goal in my creative life,” she told the magazine. It’s an understandable decision for Wiig, who after years on Saturday Night Live might not want to get stuck on repeat now that she’s made the jump to movies. But it’s also a choice that suggests something revealing about why women in Hollywood have a harder time building durable star power than their male counterparts.
Movie franchises like Fast & Furious, Marvel’s family of Avengers films, or even a cheeseball action nostalgia romp like The Expendables may bore audiences after awhile, but they’re an incredible gift to the male actors lucky enough to be cast in them. If a studio’s going to stake its reputation and financial future on an extremely long-running project like the Pirates of the Caribbean series or the car-porn-turned-heist franchise Fast & Furious, the company doesn’t just have an interest in getting audiences to invest in characters they’ll be seeing for years to come; they have an interest in making the actors who portray those characters a big draw in their own right. If they can pull this off, it doesn’t matter what the villain or plot of the latest superhero rumble is or which stranger tides Jack Sparrow is setting sail on—audiences will turn out for Robert Downey Jr., no matter what he’s doing, or Johnny Depp, no matter which face paint he’s slathering on.
Opting out of a potential franchise might give Wiig, or any other actress who makes the same decision, a greater sense of artistic integrity and more room in her schedule to pursue a wide range of projects. But it also means that she’s opting out of a long-term business deal in which a large, rich organization would have an awful lot of incentive to promote Wiig, which could also include a long-term financial commitment to her that she could use to fund other projects.
Part of the reason I’d love to see more women get into the superhero game is because then they could demand the kind of money and deference Downey Jr. does for playing Iron Man. And building a brand is not the same thing as building a franchise. Katherine Heigl may have appeared in romantic comedy after romantic comedy, but each project was a new test of her star power. And as that star power slipped, studios became more reluctant to get into the Heigl business rather than trying to revitalize it because her success was in their long-term best interests.
There are important advantages to maintaining actresses’ independence from the studios, of course—nobody wants to go back to the bad old days when actresses could be put on the shelf and denied the ability to work by the companies that held their contracts if they fell out of favor. But a franchise contract isn’t nearly as abusive as an exclusive deal with a studio. And it would be nice to see some women in Hollywood get the opportunity to take advantage of the franchise system in the same way that so many of their beefy brethren are now, with an eye toward both their short- and long-term opportunities.