by Martha Coolidge
Most directors work intermittently as free-lance employees and are far from rich or powerful. Only directors who make the biggest hits are sought after, well paid and are offered the best scripts. Some write, which is how they got a good script in the first place. Most successful directors use their power to become producers, making them more money and giving them more control. A few women have made big hits, but no woman director since the early silent era has had a career anything like those of the successful men.
Spielberg was the quintessential ‘wunderkind,’ and all studios look for the next “boy wonder.” Thousands of would-be-directors enter film school every year with the hope that they could be the one, but only the best achieve careers. For guys competition is fierce, but for women you are more likely to win the lottery.
To get more powerful women directors we would need more women directing, and to do that we have to start by changing our cultural attitude toward women 180 degrees.
1. Men and women would have to learn to identify with female heroes and leaders. Why? Aside from opening up all the genres to women, we need to collectively imagine a woman as the ‘wunderkind,’ the “girl wonder,” a director who tells stories the mass audience wants to see.
2. Young women would have to believe this was within their reach.
3. Thousands of women would have to train for directing careers and hone their craft.
4. Producers and studios would need to hire many more women than they do now and believe one of them could be “it.” They would need to judge women on the strength of their ideas and work, not on their sex appeal.
5. Producers couldn’t limit women to lower budget films, and should expect them to handle big crews, big budgets, big ideas and big stars.
6. All of us, parents and teachers starting in childhood, and later men in the business, would have to take women seriously and never ask them to play into gender-based feminine behavior.
7. Competitive women in particular would have to want success as a director before anything else, like finding a man, or having a family. Successful directors are workaholics who define themselves by their careers and seek the company of their creative colleagues.
8. These women would have to feel secure with power, employing and delegating to others and making decisions alone. They should be encouraged to produce, write and direct, love competition, push past boundaries, and welcome any opportunity to overcome failure.
9. We all would have to embrace women in command, and accept eccentric behavior, and even tantrums, frequently caused by extreme pressure – not desirable, but tolerated in men. Most women directors learn to walk a delicate line between not being bitchy and not being wimpy to keep their jobs. Male directors don’t waste time or energy on this.
I know hundreds of directors. Women directors, like their counterparts, are mother and father, general and cheerleader. Men and women who direct have strong male and female sides and frankly, are more alike than not.
What you direct is not about gender. Directors can handle material that appeals to them; it’s about their point of view. Plenty of women want to do action movies with big budgets and work with fantasy and effects.
But if it was only about commerce, things might be better. There is an uncomfortable truth that especially in the entertainment business many men use their position to indulge in being surrounded by sexy girls or whatever their taste may be, and don’t want their wives, sisters and mothers around. Many would deny it publicly, but state it privately. Women threaten some men. They say they don’t understand women, and that is why they don’t feel comfortable or identify with them.
So how can we create opportunities? Pressure works. Employment of women directors rose in TV when the DGA publicly pressured the Networks to hire minorities. However, now the statistics tell us that the number of women directing TV has remained static at around 11% for years. Worse, according to Martha Lauzen in her Celluloid Ceiling report of 2011, women comprised 5% of feature directors, down from 2000 when women made up 11 % of feature directors (the best it’s ever been).
What is happening? I had more women in my class when I attended NYU Film School in the twentieth century than I have in the directing classes I teach at Chapman now. I have spoken to young women who love directing, but don’t see it as a viable career. They may be right.
I was raised to believe I was equal and discovered, working in movies, it wasn’t true. I’ve spent my life trying to change that. Though women directors are now a small part of the industry, we are an invisible minority. Even in government, we lack representation and our right to choose (ie. our freedom) is in question, again. It feels like we have gone backwards. The cultural dismissal of women is so ingrained that the public (including some women) doesn’t seem to perceive a problem.
The only people who know how big the problem is are the women who suffer the consequences of lack of opportunity and loss of career and income. But in a real way, the public looses by not seeing the work and insights or having the example of the women who are shut out.
So here is my dramatic answer to how to get more women in power in directing careers: I believe we need an intervention in hiring practices– like a law. This would have to be a Civil Rights or Equal Opportunity Employment Act against discrimination in private employment. Are Republicans and Democrats going to join hands to pass this? No.
Conversely, we have to level the playing field to put women directors in positions of equal power. Yet, we won’t be looked at equally until the cultural attitude toward women and our entire belief system changes. Perhaps the best we can ask for is more pressure– public and private– on the men at the studios to include “success for women” high on their agenda, and in practice, equal hiring of women directors in all genres.
Martha Coolidge is one of America’s most distinguished feature directors. Her films’ innumerable awards include three IFP Spirit Awards: Best Director, Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress, five Emmys, a Golden Globe, a SAG Award, two NAACP Awards. Nominations include two Academy Awards, 16 Emmys, 4 Golden Globes, and three DGA Awards. Ms. Coolidge was the first woman president of the Director’s Guild of America and received their distinguished Robert Aldrich Award. She has served on boards of the DGA, AFI, Academy of Motion Pictures, Rhode Island School of Design, and the NYU Tisch School of the Arts Dean’s Council. She is a full professor of film at Chapman University.