Percentage of Female Directors Unchanged Despite ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ ‘Pitch Perfect 2’ (Study)

Female Directors in Hollywood Sam Taylor-Johnson
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Female directors such as “Pitch Perfect 2’s” Elizabeth Banks and “Fifty Shades of Grey’s” Sam Taylor-Johnson scored at the box office last year, but their popular success is an anomaly in an industry that remains dominated by men.

Women comprised 9% of directors on the top 250 domestic grossing films and 12% of directors on the top 500 domestic grossing films, according to a new report by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. That’s a slight, 2% improvement over the previous year, but the same representation women enjoyed in 1998, a sign of the durability of this particular celluloid ceiling.

“It takes a long time for big industries to change their behavior,” said Dr. Martha Lauzen, the center’s executive director and the study’s author. “It would be unrealistic to expect that attitudes about women as directors to change over night, but nothing in this data suggests that change is on the horizon.”

Since the center began conducting its research 17 years ago, the high-water mark has been in 2000 when female directors made 11% of the top 250 films.

The latest findings come as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is investigating hiring practices at major Hollywood studios because of the lack of representation by female directors on major films. It also emerges in the wake of a larger debate about the gender pay gap — a discussion that was sparked after “Hunger Games” star Jennifer Lawrence wrote an opinion piece last October recounting her anger over being paid less than her male co-stars on “American Hustle.”

“There’s a lot more dialogue around the issue, but building on that conversation has been incremental and slow,” said Lauzen.

Women didn’t fare much better in professions other than directing. They comprised 11% of writers, 20% of executive producers, 26% of producers, 22% of editors, and 6% of cinematographers. Each area of employment saw gains, however. The percentage of women working in those four fields increased between one and four percentage points from 2014.

The type of film being made also had an impact on the gender breakdown. Documentaries and comedies tend to employ more women, with females making up 36% and 34% of individuals working on these films, respectively. But women are less likely to be tapped for action and horror movies, making up 9% and 11% of of the work force on projects in these genres.

Having woman in a key position appears to have an impact on creating more diversity among film crews. Features with female directors employed higher percentages of women than those overseen by male filmmakers. Women made up 53% of writers, 32% of editors, and 12% of cinematographers on films directed by other women. When men were behind the camera, the numbers fell substantially — 10% of writers were female, 19% of editors, and 10% of cinematographers.

Although the warm commercial reception that “Pitch Perfect 2,” “Fifty Shades of Grey,” and other female-driven projects such as Nancy Meyers’ “The Intern” received demonstrate that betting on women directors can be profitable, Lauzen cautions that their success can allow the entertainment industry to put on blinders.

“Every time a film directed by a woman does well that’s positive,” she said. “But there can be a negative aspect. Heads of studios will use a few high profile cases to say we’re doing our part or to say that there is a problem of under-employment, just not at their studio. It’s a double-edged sword.”

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  1. RW says:

    The ‘there aren’t enough female directors’ argument is a false one. There are loads in the big industry centers, they just aren’t working as much as the male directors or as high up the ladder. There would be even more women doing it if it weren’t for the constant pressure to be quiet and complacent while growing up, whereas boys growing up are encouraged to take charge and be leaders.

    Women are fantastic directors. We grew up doing it – what do you think playing ‘dolls’ is?

  2. ben says:

    It seems like a false issue to me, isn’t there some interest factor, like there are not that many women interested in being professional fire fighters, hence they are not that many. It could be that there are not that many women interested in being directors, but other areas of the entertainment business. And there is not anything wrong with that. Frankly any sane person these days would not want to be a director.

    • With respect, that’s simply not true. Speaking from personal experience, I knew several women in film school (including myself) that wanted to be directors, yet none of them are employed as such. There are obviously women in the field that would like to direct, but they’re not being given the opportunity to. Why would the number of female directors be so low for so many years unless there was an institutional bias? Women make up 50% of the population, yet there are only a small percentage working as directors, while there are tons of men directing. Additionally, women are penalized more if their films aren’t a financial success and their gender is blamed, whereas men who make films that don’t do well financially are given chances time and time again, with no mention of their gender as a reason why their film(s) didn’t succeed.

      • ben says:

        Caroline,
        I respect your point, especially because you are in film school. I certainly wish you call the best, and your female friends in school. But respectfully, because the female gender is 50% of the population does not mean that there is necessarily any logical connection to gender balance in any job or any industry.

        I would imagine, guessing here, that the lack of any top 10 box office blockbusters directed by a woman has damaged this cause. However is it logical to say that a woman has never directed a top 10 blockbuster because they were never granted the opportunity? Or is it that there was not interest by the female directors working already in the industry? Or is it both? Colin Trevorrow got a lot of flack for what he said, but i wonder if Star Wars of Jurassic World or Harry Potter scripts were put before Kathryn Bigelow or Diablo Cody if they would even consider taking the job? I pretty much think that they would not.

  3. Mitch says:

    Perhaps they are simply not enough female directors that are good enough. Is that an option? Or do we HAVE to fill quotas so EVERYBODY can feel good about themselves?

    • There obviously are plenty of talented female directors out there, yet they’re not being given a chance. Even directors with critical and commercial successes aren’t given the projects to direct that their male counterparts are. Look at the filmographies of directors like Nancy Meyers of Kathryn Bigelow versus those of Steven Spielberg or David O. Russell – they’ve directed far fewer films and have longer gaps between films. And there are probably many more aspiring directors that haven’t even been able to direct a single studio film. There doesn’t have to be a quota, just equal representation of 50% of our population. Or do you think that women are just inherently not as creative or smart as men and not just as capable of making a good movie?

    • Adam says:

      I guess the arguement being made is that if women make up roughly about half of the population then why are there so few female directors? Another option is that for whatever reason most women are simply not interested in directing films.

      • emma says:

        Anyone who’s been to film school would know that’s not the case. Many women want to be directors and the opportunities are just not there

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