Femme helmers strive for level playing field

Industry still attaches stigma to 'chick pics'

What do women want? Ask any female director, and she’ll tell you a level playing field. She need only point to theaters for evidence that this still isn’t the case. Of the 60 firstrun films screening in New York at the beginning of July, a meager seven were helmed by women.

“I find it so puzzling that we would entrust our lives to a heart surgeon and their gender doesn’t matter. Yet to entrust women with an entertainment, that’s an issue?” says Joe Petricca, head of American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

The AFI program has provided hands-on training to aspiring women directors since 1974. “Every year we ask, ‘Is this workshop still valid?’ ” says Petricca. “It was created in a world much different than today’s. Yet we look at those numbers and say, ‘Of course it’s still valid.'”

Landing a directing job is tough no matter who you are. But women face a few extra hurdles. That’s certainly the case with “chick pics” like Sandra Goldbacher’s “Me Without You” and Nicole Holofcener’s “Lovely and Amazing,” currently in theaters. But it’s also true of films that aren’t identifiably female, such as Mira Nair’s “Monsoon Wedding” and Jill Sprecher’s “13 Conversations About One Thing.”

When Holofcener and Good Machine tried to develop “Lovely and Amazing,” a biting comedy about three sisters and their mother, “every studio, big and small, rejected it,” the writer-director recalls. “I heard the ‘soft’ word a lot. I’m thinking, ‘What’s soft? My brain? Am I not getting something?’ Why are tender, emotional, sad, funny, human stories ‘soft’? Besides, I hate sentimentality. I’d rather croak than make a sappy movie.”

Indeed, Holofcener’s ear for smart dialogue and contemporary female neuroses not only earned her kudos from film critics, but also turned heads at HBO’s “Sex and the City,” which hired her to direct several episodes.

But getting “Lovely and Amazing” greenlit was possible only after Holofcener agreed to shoot in 24p high definition, linking up with digital production company Blow Up Pictures. What’s more, the project’s $1 million budget meant that Holofcener was working with $200,000 less than her first film.

“I wanted to go up from ‘Walking and Talking,’ not down,” she says. Despite this frustration, she’s grateful for the opportunity. “I’m one of the lucky ones, in that I can tell the stories I want to tell and have a movie playing in theaters right now.”

When Jill Sprecher and sister Karen were writing “13 Conversations About One Thing,” both were wary of the femme labels attached to their first film, “Clockwatchers.”

“There’s certainly nothing about ’13 Conversations’ that says it’s a woman’s film,” says Sprecher, who had high hopes that this would make it an easier sell. Not so. “This one took three times as long.”

One reason was the use of “Clockwatchers'” numbers as a litmus test. The figures were less than stellar (the film made less than $35,000 in its opening weekend, and grossed less than $450,000), but in Sprecher’s view, that was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“We were told, ‘Nobody’s going to want to go see a movie about women in an office if they don’t take off their clothes.’ So the distributor (BMG Independents) planned to release it in eight cities, then put it out on video. Then it got written about in a couple of national forums, and theaters started calling the distributor, who wasn’t prepared to make more prints. So the film never had a chance. They kept pulling it out of a city after one week. It ended up going to a hundred cities, which was great, but when we were trying to get our second film made, people would point to the first and say, ‘It’s never going to be a blockbuster.'”

Sprecher also met resistance to “13 Conversations'” ensemble format and nonlinear story structure. From her perspective, the industry’s unbending adherence to narrative formula is another hurdle for women, albeit a subtle one.

“There is a real prototype,” she explains, “which is a three-act structure and a protagonist who overcomes obstacles and in the end gets it all. Well, if you just think about that construct, it’s very male. Women are used to not having it all. We have to give up things if we want other things. It’s more bittersweet. So right there, that whole construction is outside the realm of the female experience.”

Sprecher isn’t alone in resisting that framework. AFI’s Petricca witnessed a near revolt among students when a powerhouse woman agent presented an unvarnished view of the film business.

“She was saying ‘This is how it works, get used to it,’ But the group said, ‘No. I want to make an ensemble piece; I have a different story to tell, or a different way to tell that story.’ A lot of filmmakers don’t want to fall into that structure.”

Petricci doesn’t believe Hollywood will change to accommodate their views. But, he notes, “maybe there will be a revitalization of an independent scene in America in the next 10 years, and women will be behind that, which would be exciting.”

In the meantime, directors like Holofcener hope that chick pics will lose their stigma.

“There are enough chicks out there to make this movie a huge hit,” she says, adding, “Certainly, if these movies were advertised the way ‘Men in Black’ is advertised, more people would go see them.”

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