Ocean’s Eight and the Case for Original Female Films

By  · Published on August 11th, 2016

Why we need fewer “gender-flipped” reboots and more original films that star women.

Picture this… but, like, with women. (Warner Bros)

Warner Brothers announced yesterday they are closing in on principal cast for Ocean’s Eight, the female ensemble caper spinoff directed by Gary Ross (The Hunger Games, Free State of Jones) and set to shoot in New York this October. Deadline reports that aside from the previously announced leads Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett, deals are close with Anne Hathaway, Rihanna, Helen Bonham Carter, Mindy Kaling, and Awkwafina. The cast is an interesting mix of A-list actors, a television star, a pop star, and an internet rapper. Look no further than Deadline’s infamous comment section to see a mixed bag of reactions to the casting announcement ranging from sheer excitement to sexist despair. As we’ve seen with the recent Ghostbro debacle, this online haterade is unfortunately typical for an all-women ensemble film. But while it’s great to see the studios finally opening up to projects starring women, it would be far more exciting to see women in original projects versus reboots, remakes, requels, or whatever else they’re calling them these days.

The Ocean’s films have gone through various casting changes but the formula remains the same: George Clooney plays Danny Ocean, a charming con artist who recruits a posse of criminal professionals to pull off one last heist for old time’s sake. The original featured Clooney with fellow top-liners Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, and Julia Roberts, and a motley crew of comedians and character actors including Bernie Mack, Don Cheadle, Elliott Gould, Scott Caan, Carl Reiner, Casey Affleck, Eddie Jemison, and Shaobo Qin. Of course, this “original” is actually a remake of the 1960 film of the same name starring Frank Sinatra (in the titular role of Ocean), Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, and Angie Dickinson. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, the remake’s premise featured the ragtag bunch of misfits coming together to – spoiler alert – set their differences aside and pull off the greatest heist of all time… until the next film, anyway.

Ocean’s is a nearly foolproof concept with its flashy caper scenes and witty character banter. I would have been first in line for this all-female incarnation if this was, say, 2010. But it’s 2016, and it’s been far too long since Ocean’s 13, and, quite frankly, the concept feels tired and outdated. We’ve seen a string of comedy heist films since then from 21 to Now You See Me, and one could argue that super hero ensembles draw some of their flashy comedic influences from the Ocean’s films. With that in mind, Ocean’s Eight feels a day late and a dollar short. It’s casting combination of Award-winning actresses with millennial pop culture figures could be read as an executive team’s attempt to win over four quadrant audiences, or at least all the women everywhere just in case the boys don’t show up to the theater. The film will require a strong script and solid direction to turn excellent performances and recreate the same or similar cast chemistry of the Soderbergh films.

Another thing to note is that Ocean’s Eight is yet another example of an all-female film directed by (shocker) a man. Ross may have directed the first installment of The Hunger Games, but it would have been a far more interesting choice to have a female director lead the charge. Diversity in front of the camera only truly works if there is diversity behind the camera, so you have writers, directors, and producers pushing for diverse and accurate representations on-screen. The great thing is that apart from Ross and his mostly male producing team, Ocean’s Eight has women in key positions including executive producer Susan Ekins (who served as EP on all of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s films), Olivia Milch who wrote the script with Ross, and Warner Brothers Marketing and Distribution head Sue Kroll. Fingers crossed these women will have a lot of say in the film’s production and marketing.

Sony Pictures

The “gender-flipped” casting of Ocean’s Eight has unsurprisingly led to comparisons to the recent reboot of Ghostbusters. Imagine the meetings where these films were first pitched – “It’s Ocean’s Eleven, but ALL WOMEN.” This “insert-women-here” approach of the so-called “gender-flipping” phenomenon is a lazy executive’s way of trying to capitalize on old IP. But “gender-flipping” novelty aside, there is one lesson that could be learned from Ghostbusters. Directed by feminist Paul Feig, the supernatural comedy starring Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones proved the haters wrong by opening to a cool $46 million in its first weekend. Despite receiving critical praise including a positive critique from our own Tomris Laffly, negative reviews and a lackluster summer box office have led to meager profits. After a month in release, the film has earned just $118 million domestically and just under $63 million internationally for a total of about $181 million. With a reported budget of at least $144 million not counting its marketing spend, THR reports that the film is set to lose $70 million and a sequel is unlikely.

But the lesson from Ghostbusters has nothing to do with the gender of its cast. Movies with all-female casts can succeed, as exemplified by Feig’s now legendary female ensemble comedy Bridesmaids starring Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Melissa McCarthy, and host of funny ladies with a script written by Wiig and Annie Mumolo. Other successful women ensemble casts include Elizabeth Banks’ Pitch Perfect franchise, Tina Fey’s cult comedy Mean Girls, and The Help starring Viola Davis and Jessica Chastain. The lesson here is that reboots don’t always work, regardless of whether they star women, men, or all of the above. What works are good stories and original IPs that don’t rely so much on brand identification to succeed. Case in point: Spy.

20th Century Fox

One of my favorite films of 2015 was Feig’s Spy, which starred Melissa McCarthy as the unlikely secret agent Susan Cooper in a hilariously original take on the spy genre. Working off a budget of $65 million, the film made just under $111 million domestically and $125 million internationally, for a combined total just shy of $236 million worldwide. Now if that doesn’t spell success or even sequel, I don’t know what does. The film’s marketing even parodied famous Bond movie posters like Goldfinger to play on the movie’s silly but surprisingly fun take on Bond and Bond-inspired films. In a way, it capitalized on something old – spy movie tropes – while making it completely fresh and different. And (shocker) it wasn’t a reboot.

Just as Spy drew from Bond, the Ocean’s Eight filmmakers can take inspiration from the Ocean’s series but make something new and, in a sense, original. We probably won’t know if this is the strategy they’re going for until we see a trailer or learn more about the story. The script could prove itself much better than we think, and the final cast might end up having that magical chemistry of Danny Ocean’s original remake crew. A lot of things could change between now and the film’s release, but I won’t hold my breath just yet. While I love me some women in any movie, I’d love to see women in original stories even more. And maybe one day the novelty of gender-flipped casting will be replaced by simply making good movies that just so happen to star ladies.

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Writer. Audio/Creative Producer. Columnist, Film School Rejects.