Women in Film: Despite achievement at the highest levels, women still find themselves pounding on doors that are slow to open
When Catherine Hardwicke, the brash darling of indie films like “Thirteen,” landed the job to direct the adaptation of 2008’s “Twilight,” it was an important crack in Hollywood’s glass ceiling. The first chapter of the vampire saga went on to gross nearly $400 million worldwide, breaking records for a female filmmaker.
“I thought after ‘Twilight’ my life was going to be easy,” Hardwicke says. “I was the first woman to do that. But no, it hasn’t been easy.”
Hardwicke dropped out of the “New Moon” sequel over scheduling disputes with Summit Entertainment, but she expected other lucrative deals to follow. They never did. Her next project, a modern retelling of “Hamlet” with Emile Hirsch, wilted in development purgatory. Warner Bros. then tapped her for its 2011 horror pic “Red Riding Hood.” There was just one problem.
“I ended up taking a pay cut,” Hardwicke says. “I guess I thought after the success of ‘Twilight,’ I might have had a bigger opportunity instead of a smaller one.”
Hardwicke now is promoting “Plush,” a $2 million sexual thriller about a girl rock star, which arrives on VOD in October. She’s hustling to secure financing for more ambitious projects, but it’s been a struggle. “I’m a five-four female from Texas with no family ties to this business,” she says. “Of course there are double standards. No one can say it’s a level playing field.”
That’s a recurring lament among a dozen influential women in the film industry interviewed by Variety about gender equality in Hollywood. Recent years have seen women land powerful positions, particularly at nascent tech companies — think Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg. But women are still grappling for equality, better pay and more jobs in the film business.
“We are making strides, but we still have a long way to go,” says Amy Pascal, co-chair of Sony Pictures.
A decade ago, women headed three of the six major studios: Pascal, Paramount Pictures’ Sherry Lansing and Universal Pictures’ Stacey Snider. Today, there are two, Pascal and U’s newly named chair Donna Langley, both of whom still report to men. While there’s an increasing number of women throughout Hollywood’s executive ranks — including three key division heads at 20th Century Fox — there are none at the next level up. You won’t find any woman atop any media conglomerate, be it Time Warner, News Corp., Viacom, Disney, NBCUniversal or Sony Corp.
“Clearly, there is no shortage of qualified women in the industry, but what you don’t see often enough are women owners and CEOs,” says Pascal. “I would argue that across the board in high-risk/high-return businesses, women are under-represented and still facing institutional challenges.”
In her bestseller “Lean In,” Facebook’s Sandberg explores why women’s progress in attaining leadership positions has stalled, and how they must be empowered to realize their full potential. Snider, CEO of DreamWorks, echoes those views.
“What Sheryl Sandberg writes about women not going for (a job) or assuming they won’t get it … or for whatever reason being satisfied by really successful but not penultimate jobs (is) at play, too, along with institutional barriers,” Snider says.
Decisions at the studios as to what movies are made are largely driven by market trends. And there are some encouraging signs that such trends may lead to a shifting of sands as far as gender is concerned. Though Hollywood perpetuates the myth that the box office is still driven by men, 51% of moviegoers in 2011 were women. The success of movies such as “Bridesmaids,” “Twilight,” “Hunger Games,” “The Help,” “Julie & Julia” and this summer’s buddy comedy “The Heat,” headlined by Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, gives studio chiefs like Pascal and Langley the motivation and profits to expand the kind of movies they make.
“There’s a commerce to it,” Langley acknowledges. “Women drive a lot of the box office and households.”
Jennifer Lee, co-director of Disney’s upcoming animated film “Frozen,” agrees that the notion of targeting males as a top priority is misguided and outmoded.
“What we’re always told in the industry is the audience you want is men, 18-35,” says Lee, noting that men are considered the hardest audience to please “because they are the first ones to say no” and that women are more flexible.
Lee and Jennifer Yuh, who directed “Kung Fu Panda 2,” the highest-grossing animated film helmed by a female director, are somewhat rare. Indeed, the gender balance is abysmal: Female directors accounted for a mere 9% of jobs on the top 250 domestic films last year, according to a study conducted by San Diego State U.’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.
Women are still an overwhelming minority behind the camera. The study revealed that women represented only 18% of directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers and editors working on the top 250 domestic films of 2012 — only a 1% rise since 1998.
In 2010, “The Hurt Locker’s” Kathryn Bigelow became the first female director to win an Oscar. But privately, some women say that monumental achievement has given the men in charge of the purse strings a license to act like there’s no longer a gender barrier in Hollywood.
“Essentially our study said the key obstacle for women in film is an inability to get funding from financing networks, which are primarily male controlled,” says Cathy Schulman, Oscar-winning producer of “Crash” and president of the industry org Women in Film.
Some are baffled by this disconnect. “I really don’t understand it,” says “Hunger Games” producer Nina Jacobson, “especially given how much success there has been to back up the premise that women do matter in the marketplace.”
The financial uncertainty of the film business has only made things harder for women, as small genre films have disappeared in favor of studio blockbusters based on comicbooks, for which studios tend to favor male directors in even greater numbers. “I certainly think the woman problem is being confounded by the fact that everyone in the industry is struggling right now,” says Kimberly Peirce, who directed the upcoming remake of “Carrie.” Male action stars typically rule the summer box office, but this year especially so. Fox’s “The Heat” was the only big action comedy headlined by women.
Kelly Bush, CEO of ID PR, bemoans the paucity of good roles for women: “It’s harder than ever to get thoughtful dramas and even romantic comedies made, so that is limiting to most actors, especially women.”
Executives blame the agencies for not signing enough female clients, and the agencies accuse studios of not hiring the females they do sign.
“Females are signed way less than men, whether they are directors or (in other fields),” Schulman says. “One of the reasons is there’s a belief at the agencies that women have shorter half-lives as clients,” meaning women directors don’t work through their 50s, 60s and 70s as frequently as men do.
Consequently, a new male director with a film at Sundance is six times more likely to get signed than a female director, according to Schulman.
Even recent hit franchises targeted almost exclusively to women, like “Sex and the City,” staffed up with male writers and directors. It almost negates the female point of view that these lucrative franchises are supposed to be targeting. Perhaps that’s why a handful of powerful actresses are using their clout to get themselves in the director’s chair. Langley tapped Angelina Jolie for “Unbroken,” while Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett announced their respective plans for helming debuts.
Women in leadership roles say it’s vital to change the narrative. There is hope that a new generation of women like Lena Dunham will inspire more women to plunge into film careers.
Lake Bell, who wrote, directed and starred in indie film “In a World,” says her generation of filmmakers have come of age with many strong female role models. “From my perspective,” Bell notes, “I’ve never felt particularly limited by my gender.”