By Rob Lowman
What if you’re the majority, but still the minority?
Women make up nearly 51 percent of the U.S. population and 40 percent of the workforce, but comprise just 13.7 percent of the director members of the Directors Guild. They direct just 14 percent of TV, less than 10 percent of all features, and less than 5 percent of studio features.
“Directing is the final frontier. It’s the one area where women have made no real inroads.” That was producer Gale Ann Hurd (“The Terminator” “Armageddon,” “The Walking Dead”) from a January 1999 New York Times article, which cited statistics from 1998 that are nearly identical to ones of today.
So why haven’t women made inroads in more than 16 years?
“I’d thought we would be done asking these questions by now,” says Martha Coolidge, the DGA’s first female president who began her career in the 1970s. She has some 50 directing credits, with her first hit being “Valley Girl” from 1983.
There is no simple explanation why job numbers for women directors remain abysmal. Numerous studies, however, confirm that there has been no significant progress since the 1990s. Even stats from the DGA, who some members see as being part of the problem, paint a bleak picture.
DGA President Paris Barclay has called upon employers to take responsibility for improving their hiring practices, but why should studios and large production companies do anything if there is no real pressure to do so?
You can look at the lack of women in directors’ chairs as a systemic problem– a combination of sexism and the Hollywood power system. More people in and out of the entertainment industry are beginning to see it as a civil rights problem, however.
Recently, the American Civil Liberties Union began collecting accounts of discrimination from female directors (https://www.aclu.org/secure/my-story-woman-director). “We’re gathering the stories basically to bring a human dimension to the cold and dark statistics we see every year,” says Melissa Goodman, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU.
“We are finding that real barriers do exist,” noted Goodman, adding: “It’s important for people to understand that it’s not just a practical problem, but a legal problem as well. Under state and federal laws, it is illegal for employers to engage in gender discrimination, and these laws apply to studios, networks and production companies that employ directors. That’s why were interested in the problem.”
The rub in talking about discrimination against women directors is that it often gets lumped with (and then lost beneath) diversity solutions for ethnic minority men. Today Guild signatories can fulfill their diversity obligations by hiring male ethnic minority members, says Maria Giese, a feature film director who has been fighting for change through the DGA’s Women’s Steering Committee.
In a study released by the Guild last September on the 2013-2014 TV season, it found that 17 percent of the episodes were directed by ethnic minority men. That actually is not bad, given that minority males are an estimated 17.9 percent of the population. (Like in the U.S. Census, DGA members self identify.)
Women, however, who make up 51 percent of the population, directed just 14 percent (12 percent Caucasians, 2 percent women of color). White males helmed the rest– 86 percent. That is indicative of male dominance in “the industry.”
In feature films, it is much worse for female directors. Last year, only 8 percent of the 250 top-grossing-movies were helmed by women. And women direct less than 5 percent of studio features. So, it’s almost no surprise that Ava DuVernay didn’t get an Oscar nomination for directing the Best Picture nominated “Selma.” It wasn’t like the odds were in her favor.
IT’S A MALE NARRATIVE
“The Academy insists its only criterion is excellence,” says Giese. “But with a membership that is 94 percent Caucasian and 77 percent male, what chance is there for other versions of ‘excellence’ to be appreciated?”
Giese is one of those directors who have been pushing for the Guild to take more action in trying to get women hired. “Hollywood, for all its outspoken liberalism, is an industry that has consistently kept women shut out,” she says.
Making films and TV shows is a collaborative effort. Producers, screenwriters and actors have input, but a director is often the most important element. The best ones are called auteurs– authors of the films. So it isn’t surprising that the stories are overwhelmingly about men.
A study released last month by The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University found that females comprised a mere 12 percent of protagonists in the top-grossing films of 2014, down from 15 percent last year and 16 percent from 2002.
What the world is getting onscreen “reflects a mostly male point of view,” says Giese. It also reflects the bias in Hollywood.
A LITTLE HISTORY
Last September, there was a 35th Anniversary Celebration event for the six founding members of the DGA’s Women’s Steering Committee. “These were the brave women who called out the numbers,” says feature director Maria Burton, the co-chair of The Alliance of Women Directors for six years. “It was called a celebration, but it really felt depressing because of the lack of progress.”
In 1979, less than 1 percent of directors were women. After that, statistics improved, but the numbers have never been above the teens. “Even if (our numbers) had gone up one percentage point a year, they should be at 35 percent today,” says Burton, whose Five Sisters Productions make features and documentaries.
Coolidge, who headed the DGA from 2002-03, says until the late 1990s they were being deceived about the numbers. She says successful women DGA directors like herself, Mimi Leder, Randa Mitchell and Betty Thomas couldn’t understand why they weren’t “really getting any choices or many offers.”
So they began looking at the TV numbers because it was easier verify the contracts. When they found out how bad things were, the DGA put out press releases naming shows that didn’t hire women directors, trying to shame them, and sent representatives to meet with the networks.
The DGA still lists shows with the worst records of hiring women and minority directors, but as Coolidge notes, “It hasn’t gotten better. It fact it’s gotten worst.”
A MEN’S CLUB
In the early years of Hollywood, many more women worked as directors. Then as movie directing became more glamorous and lucrative, women were pushed aside to make room for more men. The mid-century introduced an era of machismo. There were stories of the casting couch and abuse of power. Those days continue, though less publicly, and their residual effects are powerful.
The obstacles women encounter trying to get directing jobs are the same ones many women face in other professions, except they are up against a very entrenched fraternity. Many of the female directors I have talked to over the years told me that men tend to be more comfortable working with other men. They are also more likely to help each other out.
Even if a man wants to help a woman, he may think twice about it. Lexi Alexander, an Oscar-nominated director, says that not long ago a producer tried to help her secure a directing job on a TV show. “He told me, ‘I can only push so far because people will immediately think I’m sleeping with you.’”
A 2014 Harvard Business Review study found that people who have mentors are more successful than those who don’t, but it also found fewer women do. A 2010 Center for Talent Innovation study said that nearly two-thirds of men in senior positions are wary of one-on-one contact with junior female employees because they might be suspected of having an affair. Given Hollywood’s history, that worry is compounded.
As for women helping other women, recently ousted Sony Pictures chairman Amy Pascal has drawn attention forhelping perpetuate the exclusion of women directors. As one of the few high-ranking women studio executives, Sony produced very few films helmed by women during her reign, and they were not of the big-budget variety.
On the other hand, she hired McG to direct “Charlie’s Angels,” with only music video credits to his name, and Marc Webb to reboot the “Spider-Man” franchise after making the low-budget indie hit “(500) Days of Summer.” You don’t see any Cinderella stories like that for women, though.
GHETTOIZATION OF WOMEN
Since most women rarely get big-budget gigs, they often go the indie or documentary route. “Instead of going around asking for permission or millions of dollars, grab a camera, try stuff out and keep submitting to the festivals,” advises Lynn Shelton, director of Laggies.
More and more women are trying it, but that just re-enforces the idea that female directors are only interested in small relationship movies and increases the competition for the few jobs they are considered for.
“When you have the raise the money yourself,” says Burton, “the stories tend to be small because that’s all you can afford.” That doesn’t mean women don’t want to direct big-budget films with superheroes,” she adds.
Coolidge says she didn’t get into the movie business because she wanted to make small films. She wanted to be David Lean, the director of Lawrence of Arabia, “I wanted to make epics.” But getting the right material is important for a director to be successful, she observes, and “women are too often only offered material men don’t want to touch.”
Valentine’s Day weekend, may have proven that spectacularly. “Fifty Shades of Grey” made $94 million at the box-office, the biggest opening by a female director ever. It was directed by helmed by British artist Sam Taylor-Johnson, known more for her still photography. Her only other feature, the 2010 “Nowhere Boy,” made a whopping $1.5 million at the North American box office.
The success of “Fifty Shades” will likely be pointed at by some in the industry as indicating things are better for women directors, but its success will only skew the continuing dismal numbers. As Giese said, “the decision to hire a women on Fifty Shades was strategic. The execs hoped to get around the sexualization of male dominance by have a women direct it.”
Becoming a Hollywood director is difficult enough. A number of men have used their stardom to get into the director’s chair, think Robert Redford, Mel Gibson or George Clooney. And so have women like Angelina Jolie, Madonna, Drew Barrymore, Penny Marshall, Katie Holmes, Barbra Streisand– and Jodie Foster who is now preparing to direct a movie, “Money Monster,” with Clooney.
Giese says, “If you take the female pop stars, movie stars, and centi-millionaire celebrities out of the studio feature directing pool, there really are about zero female helmers in Hollywood making studio films.” The reality is there are far fewer jobs for women to compete for than even the statistics indicate. No one is denying the star-directors talents, but would they have gotten the jobs, if they came up through the ranks?
Every year is supposed to be the year of women at the Sundance Film Festival, which spotlights independent films. The trade magazine Variety did such a story this year and interviewed Sony Pictures Classics male co-presidents, Tom Bernard and Michael Barker.
Indeed, the festival under the Sundance Institute executive director Keri Putnam is consciously try to raise the profile of women directors. This year about one-third of the films in the American dramatic competition were from women. It seems like progress, and it may be, but an analysis I made of films that were bought at the festival doesn’t seem all that positive.
As of January 31, of the 34 films sold, 23 were by male directors and three co-directed by a man and a woman, meaning approximately 72 percent of the direction was by men. Only four feature films sold were from women directors, while 18 were by male directors.
Women directors are careful about not sounding like whiners. “Doomed if you do, doomed if you don’t,” jokes Alexander, a former martial-arts world champion, who calls herself “the anti-chick flick” director.
Lisa Cholodenko, who has seen success recently with HBO’s “Olive Kitteridge” and NBC’s “The Slap,” says she gets the question “Are things getting better for women directors” a lot. “I’m not the spokesperson or sociologist or any of that,” she says. “It is hard work being a director, but I think we’ll see over time more and more women doing it.”
This could be interpreted to mean that women aren’t doing the work because it is so difficult, rather than because they are shut out. As Giese notes, “It does seem that most women directors who are currently getting work tend to be optimistic about women directors, or they are fearful of speaking out and risking their tenuous grip on a chair in the boys club.”
Burton, who is trying to do a film on the women who tested to be Mercury astronauts in the early 1960s, says the good news is that there are statistics now to show the inequity, because “no matter how you slice and dice it, through all the years, through all the genres, in front and behind the camera, women are vastly underrepresented.”
Coolidge sees compensation as a major issue that has to be addressed. “When women are hired, that’s usually because they will work harder and accept less pay than men,” she says.
Giese wants to see the DGA-studio Collective Bargaining Agreements changed. ”It needs to include a double-mandate system to address the specific needs of women of all ethnicities, separate from male ethnic minorities,” she says.
While things may be incrementally better for female directors, some worry that it will be decades before they are on equal footing as men and in the meantime many talented female filmmakers will not get a chance to change the narrative.
We will probably know in 20 years if the past few years of feminist activism among women directors in Hollywood proves to have been a real turning point in Hollywood for women. If it is, expect some fireworks.