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Can the Westerns Genre Thread the Gender Gap Needle?

The big box office news this past weekend was the big decline in ticket sales for Suicide Squad and the strong opening for Sausage Party. But, without much fanfare, the best performing movie of the weekend was Hell or High Water, a modern day Western. Because it only opened in 32 theaters this weekend, you won’t find it in the box office top ten. It was, however, the number one movie of the weekend in terms of ticket sales per theater, racking up an impressive per screen average of $18,500, well ahead of Sausage Party at $10,828 per screen. Could the Western genre be experiencing a renaissance?

Westerns were very popular in the twentieth century up until the 1960’s. After that it seemed like their audience rode off into the sunset with the heroes of this genre. The decline of the Western genre may be influenced by the growing purchasing power of women. Today women purchase more than half of the tickets sold at movie theaters and Westerns have not been popular with women.

In a study I did of IMDB’s top movies from the Western genre the problem becomes evident. Women typically make up around 16% of the IMDB vote. For the Western genre women make up around 9% of the vote. For all movies, women have the same IMDB average rating as men. For Westerns, women have an average rating that is 0.3 points lower.

It appears that movie studios recognized that they had a problem attracting women to Western movies and began to make them more female-friendly. My study bears this out.

Movie IMDB Average Rating
Release Male Female Female % of all Votes
Pre-1970             8.4             8.0 8.5%
Post-1969             7.8             7.8 13.0%

In terms of female participation and average rating, the gender gap was clearly narrowing in the Post-1969 era.

In my 40 movie sample, three actors appear in multiple movies and they are instructive of the Western gender gap.

IMDB Average Rating
# of Movies Male Female Female % of all Votes
John Wayne 6             7.9             7.4 10%
Clint Eastwood 8             8.4             8.1 7%
Kevin Costner 4             7.7             7.7 13%

John Wayne and Clint Eastwood are symbolic of the golden age of Westerns and representative of the gender gap experienced by the genre. John Wayne is the tough as nails hero. Clint Eastwood is the tough as nails anti-hero.  Kevin Costner, on the other hand plays a more charming and humanistic hero in his movies. Where John Wayne is an Indian fighter in his roles, Costner becomes a friend of the Indians in Dances with Wolves. Where Clint Eastwood is the less than noble loner, Costner in Open Range becomes the romantic partner of the female ranch owner in her quest to protect her land.

In the Post-1969 era of the Western genre, movie producers are clearly recognizing the need to appeal to women to make the genre viable again. On the flip side, the average male vote is lower as the machismo in these movies is mitigated. It is an interesting case study in movie market dynamics.

It will be interesting to track Hell or High Water  as it moves to wider release next week. In early IMDB voting, it has 15% female participation in the voting, above average for the genre, and a male average rating of 8.2, suggesting strong male appeal. Early on it is threading the gender gap needle. We’ll have to wait a few weeks to see if this early trend continues.


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8 thoughts on “Can the Westerns Genre Thread the Gender Gap Needle?

  1. Good analysis! Have you shared this on any movie sites? 🙂


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