Historic number of them could be nominated

Female helmers have captured plenty of attention in the early days of award season and sparked optimism that, this year, more than one could land a spot on the director’s list for the Oscars. It would be a landmark event: Only three women have ever been nominated for the Acad’s coveted prize.

Some advocacy groups say women directors should use the spotlight to their advantage rather than focus on past setbacks.

“In order for the game to change, it’s going to take a seismic shift in mentality on two fronts,” suggests Jacqui Barcos, a board member of the Alliance of Women Directors, a nonprofit organization for female helmers.

“These days, when adult drama and indies can barely get arrested, women directors are going to have to reinvent the rules or they are going to find themselves sitting on the sidelines. And studio heads need to expand their shortlist of directors and cut women a break.”

“More important than anything, it demonstrates that a woman director can deliver a commercially successful film that is outside the romantic comedy ghetto,” says Barcos, a helmer herself.

“Ghetto” is a good word, as most of the established women directors contacted for this story didn’t want to be shoved into the “gender category.”

Barcos has sidelined some of her own projects to focus on pics she considers more sellable, including an action film and a hip-hop animation project.

However, like many of her peers, she recognizes that snagging high-profile jobs, namely tentpole pics, is one of the greatest challenges for women because studio heads often don’t consider them as the most obvious choice.

Kimberly Peirce, scribe and helmer of “Stop-Loss” and “Boys Don’t Cry,” says an assortment of genre screenplays come across her desk. Most recently, they’ve run the gamut from gangster pics to her current projects: an erotic thriller and a Judd Apatow-produced comedy.

“I’ll read any script, and if it’s a good story I’d love to do it,” she says. “I’d love to do an action movie.”

Peirce also recognizes that she may be an exception in the biz and that it’s difficult for her to speak as a barometer for the industry.

“To ask somebody who has been fortunate enough to even get a career, ‘Have you been limited by being a woman?,’ it’s a very hard thing to say,” she says. “It’s not like we need to verify that there’s a problem — there is a problem.”

Martha Lauzen of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film monitors the employment of women in Hollywood, and her most recent study found that they directed 9% of the 250 top-grossing American films in 2008, up a bit from 6% the previous year and in line with results from 1998.

Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig, who helmed “An Education,” says she sees things differently from outside the Hollywood studio system.

“In this part of the world, film is still considered an art form,” she says, speaking of Europe. “I think that makes a big difference, because it would always primarily be the story that is supported. It would often be films that maintain the language and describe the culture, and some of those would come from women.”

The helmer adds she hasn’t felt much pushback since she first began a career in commercials.

“It struck me this time, traveling the United States, that people assume if you’re a woman and a film director, that combination is a very important issue for you, and to me it’s not,” she asserts. “I’m finding out ¬≠that it’s a privilege to not have that concern.”

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