As 2013 looks to be another rich year for talked-about movies, it readily becomes apparent that the number of them directed by women in Hollywood is woefully small.
Of viable awards contenders this season, there’s Nicole Holofcener’s “Enough Said,” Lake Bell’s “In a World,” and … a lot of movies by guys. Contrast that with the foreign-language category where a record 16 entries are helmed by femmes.
“The movie industry is failing women,” says New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis. “And until the industry starts making serious changes, nothing is going to change.”
For 15 years, the percentage of women represented in the top 250 domestic grossers has fluctuated between 5% and 9%, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State U. (In 2012, it was 9%.) The center’s executive director, Martha Lauzen, cites a variety of factors as to why the imbalance continues, but stresses perception is a key one.
“If you don’t perceive it as a problem, then you’re not going to do anything to fix it,” Lauzen says. Then there’s the comfort level, which gets explained with specious arguments. “People don’t say ‘I’m not comfortable with women having all that power’ or handling a budget of $100 million or more. They’ll say, ‘Well, filmmaking is a business, and we try to avoid risk.’ And because there are fewer women out there, they’re perceived as being more of a risk. But the fact is, Hollywood makes risky decisions every day.”
It’s in this climate that a new movie fund named Gamechanger Films was announced in September. The goal is to fully or partly bankroll lower-budgeted narrative features directed by women. Recent studies such as the 2012 examination of gender disparity in independent film conducted by the Sundance Institute and Women in Film Los Angeles reveal the importance of mentoring in getting women actively working.
Gamechanger president Mynette Louie sees the fund’s example as indicative of a newfound solidarity as more and more women get into directing, and the impetus to address the imbalance takes hold.
“Probably a generation or two before, women were just worried about keeping their own jobs, being one of the boys rather than really mentoring younger women coming up,” Louie says. “There’s less tokenism going on, I think. I hope.”
The indie world has generally been viewed as a more solicitous arena for female directors, even if the representation isn’t great there, either. (Sundance achieved gender parity in its dramatic competition slate only in 2013.) But where is the female version of the Marc Webb story? Webb had made only one movie — the Sundance-debuted “(500) Days of Summer” — before getting a crack at a major studio franchise behemoth with “The Amazing Spider-Man.”
Says Dargis: “The great irony is that women are accused of making romantic comedies, as if it’s a bad thing, but Marc Webb makes a romantic comedy and he gets ‘Spider-Man.’ Are you kidding me? You cannot win.”
Writer-director-star Bell made a splash at Sundance this year with a romantic comedy, the feminist-themed showbiz saga “In a World,” for which she won the festival’s screenwriting prize. And she admits that “really fancy offers” have come her way. But she also thinks diving into a $150 million movie as her second directed feature would be “really stupid.”
“It’s not necessarily what I want to do next,” Bell says. “Maybe a woman is less inclined to want to take someone else’s huge mess that a studio’s been trying to make from a concept that’s already had 15 cooks in the kitchen. I’m not acting by monetary gain.”
It’s a conundrum for many women who consider themselves directors first. Qualify Holofcener as a “woman director” and you’re highlighting difference over skill, implying that it’s a separate category. Lynn Shelton (“Your Sister’s Sister”) notes the absurdity of being asked on panels or in interviews what it’s like to be a “female director.” “I would just say, ‘I’m having a great time, but I don’t know what it’s like to be a man director, so I don’t even know how to answer that.’”
And when Kathryn Bigelow breaks a ceiling and wins an Oscar, Lauzen says, “The assumption is that the problem must be solved, that well-deserved success radiates or creates this halo effect. I just don’t think it works that way. It’s not immediate. We’re talking about social change here, and attitudes about gender, race and age are all very deeply held.”
Women who come up through the independent ranks may decide going their own way is preferable to waiting for studios to hire them. But until women are routinely in the mix for tentpole juggernauts and 4,000-screen behemoths, Dargis says, “the system is broken. And we are a long way from that.”
Does the industry simply need a new generation of gender progressives, then, to come into power and displace the old guard? Ava DuVernay, who won Sundance’s directing award for “Middle of Nowhere” and is prepping her next film, “Selma,” says even though the problem is systemic, change is happening.
“I know that the things I’m able to do now, I wouldn’t have been able to do 10 years ago, just because the paradigms weren’t shifting as they are now with access and technology,” DuVernay says. “There were closed doors and gates all around. Now those gatekeepers are being forced to change.”