The chatter championing opportunity for women directors has reached a new peak even while the stats remain dire. According to USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, female helmers represented only 4% of the 100 top-grossing films of 2012. In 2014, some high-profile directors made headlines during awards season, including Angelina Jolie with her second feature, “Unbroken,” and Ava DuVernay with “Selma.”
Despite any awards-season snubs, it is important to shine the spotlight on what’s in the pipeline for 2015 and 2016 for femme helmers. According to Melissa Silverstein, founder and editor of website Women and Hollywood, “When you have women behind the scenes in power you see more women on screen — and that’s why this discussion is so important.”
Indeed, Silverstein notes that one of 2015’s highest-profile films, “Fifty Shades of Grey,” is also 2015’s highest-profile female-directed movie, by Sam Taylor-Johnson.
“It’s directed and written by women,” Silverstein says. “While ‘Fifty Shades’ might not be my cup of tea, I’m always excited that there are movies that women want to see and will make the studios pay attention to the women’s market.”
Mynette Louie, president of Gamechanger Films, the first for-profit film fund for women-directed narrative fiction feature films, says, “Part of our goal is to finance films that are critically and commercially viable. … We want to show the studios that women can make money.”
Gamechanger is taking Karen Kusama’s fourth feature, “The Invitation,” to SXSW in March.
Meanwhile, the highest-profile growth in the field is among actresses-turned-directors. Jolie sits atop that pyramid. “Unbroken” has taken in $132 million worldwide so far. She is in post-production on the historical romance “By the Sea,” slated for 2015, followed by the drama “Africa.”
“If you are Angelina Jolie, you get the opportunity to make a second movie,” says Anne Hubbell, partner-producer at Tangerine Entertainment, which exclusively produces films directed by women. “I actually think she’s a good director. Actor-directors work really well with actors. Even if neither of Angelina’s films were home runs, the performances are amazing.”
Elizabeth Banks is also following this route. Banks produced and co-starred in the musical hit “Pitch Perfect.” She then directed “Pitch Perfect 2,” counterprogrammed opposite “Mad Max: Fury Road” on May 15.
Jodie Foster returns with the media thriller “Money Monster,” starring Jack O’Connell, George Clooney and Julia Roberts. Foster has helmed two episodes of “Orange Is the New Black” and a recent episode of the largely male-directed “House of Cards.” That series’ star Robin Wright also logged an episode behind the camera. Angela Bassett made her directorial debut with the TV biopic “Whitney.”
While it’s a cliche that all actors want to direct, for actresses that frequently see opportunity decline as they mature, getting behind the camera increases their power over their own career path.
According to Hubbell, who just wrapped “Paint It Black,” directed by Amber Tamblyn, and signed Rose McGowan’s directorial debut, “The Pines”: “These women want to have a little more control. Amber, in addition to being a successful actor, is also a published poet. She read the novel by Janet Fitch, who wrote ‘White Oleander,’ and saw a way to bring it to life and put her own stamp on it.”
While Tamblyn doesn’t have an acting role in the film, “There are two strong roles for women, and all of our producers are women including our financier, which is something that Tangerine feels very strong about,” Hubbell says. “When more women are investing in films, the kind of films that are made will change, too.”
Reese Witherspoon has chosen to pursue the producing route, with her production company, Pacific Standard, launching both “Gone Girl” and “Wild.” She brought director Anne Fletcher (“The Proposal,” “The Guilt Trip”) on board for her next starring role, the action comedy “Hot Pursuit,” out May 8.
Meanwhile, at this year’s recently wrapped Sundance Film Festival, 32% of the films across the program, including international selections, were directed by women. “We’re at a watershed moment of consciousness, and we’re in a good position to think together to make real lasting systemic change,” says Keri Putnam, executive director of the Sundance Institute.
The proof is in the programming, which includes Marielle Heller’s “Diary of a Teenage Girl,” Nikole Beckwith’s “Stockholm, Pennsylvania” and “Sleeping With Other People” from Leslye Headland.
While there is some reason to be cautiously optimistic about the pace of change — the 4% cited by the USC study will not expand to 50% overnight — Gamechanger’s Louie is hopeful: “If the chatter keeps up, then studio heads will start listening. Awareness is half the battle. I would love to get to a point where the qualifier of ‘woman’ director sounds as weird as ‘man’ director … I can’t wait until that moment when we’re no longer ghettoized and held to different standards than white men.”