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.
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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.”