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Women Film Composers Fight for an Even Score

Diversity in Hollywood is a big topic these days. But consider the plight of the female composer: Over the past three years, only 1% to 2% of composers working on the top 250 films at the box office were women.

Those numbers, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, are worse than those for any other below-the-line craft. In 2014, women supervising sound editors were at 5%, cinematographers at 5%, and directors at 7%.

Martha Lauzen, who compiles these statistics at San Diego State University, calls the numbers “shockingly low.” She suspects that “the same mechanisms that suppress the numbers of women directors and cinematographers, such as gender stereotypes and expectations, also limit the numbers of women composers. What do we expect composers to look like?”

Yet there are signs of progress. On Aug. 19, the Alliance for Women Film Composers staged a concert in downtown L.A. showcasing the work of 20 top female composers in films, TV, and games. They included Oscar winner Rachel Portman; Emmy winners Wendy & Lisa, Lolita Ritmanis, and the late Shirley Walker; and BAFTA winner Jessica Curry.

ON HER CUE: The Alliance for Women Film Composers prepares for its Aug. 19 concert: president Laura Karpman, top, conducts a piece from her ‘Underground’ score; conductor Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum, above, works with musicians. Courtesy of Thomas Mikusz

In June, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, under pressure to increase diversity in its ranks, invited 12 women to its music branch. That brings the number to 38 of 293, or nearly 13% of the composers, songwriters, and music editors in the branch.

And just last month, Laura Karpman was elected as the first female governor of the Acad’s music branch, out-polling three male candidates including veteran lyricists Alan Bergman and Arthur Hamilton, and composer Carter Burwell. Karpman, an Emmy-winning composer (currently scoring WGN’s “Underground”) with an active classical career as well, is president and co-founder of the Alliance for Women Film Composers.

“I feel like I’ve been twisting a screw that’s been rusted in for 25 years and it finally feels like it’s loose,” Karpman says. “Does that mean I’m going to get the screw out and the door’s finally going to open? No, but it’s loose, and it’s incredibly exciting.”

The excuse that studio execs don’t know there are any women composers, and and the fact that they so rarely get to score major features, has bedeviled female composers for years. The Alliance, now three years old, already has about 130 members with numerous credits in films, TV, and games.

“The biggest issue has been that we are not even in the conversation,” says composer Kathryn Bostic (“Dear White People”). “I have talked to many directors and producers about this, and they always come back to me with, ‘We just don’t know of a lot of women composers.’”

“There has been a shortage of women composer role-models in Hollywood.”
Doreen Ringer-Ross

In the 81 years that the Academy has given out Oscars for music, women have been nominated just seven times in score categories, and English composer Portman is responsible for three of those; she won for “Emma” in 1996. Anne Dudley, another English composer, won the next year for “The Full Monty.”

Miriam Cutler, an award-winning composer of documentary scores (“The Hunting Ground,” “Ethel”), points out that, on major studio films, “the financial stakes are very high. The players have a community they are comfortable with and have a track record with. It’s a way of doing business that works for them. It’s an elite community and frankly a bit of a boys’ club — the same reasons we find a lack of diversity in other parts of this industry.”

Doreen Ringer-Ross, VP of film and TV at performing-rights society BMI, says, “There has been a shortage of women composer role-models in Hollywood. I’ve been going into film-scoring classrooms across the country for years, and if there are 25 students in those classes, maybe five of them are women. I think this is changing now, but change takes time.”

Karpman thinks that time has come, in part because the Alliance has given women composers a higher degree of visibility. “We have created a group of people who are advocates who are aware of the issues,” she says. “We have taken those issues to studios, to film festivals, in intimate conversations. We’ve formed friendships and alliances that are extremely powerful, that we didn’t have before.”

Out of Tune
Despite strides, women remain underrepresented
2% Percentage of the top-grossing 250 films from the past three years scored by female composers
7 Total number of nominations for women in the Academy Awards’ original score category
2 Total number of female Oscar score winners
130 Approximate number of members in the three-year-old Alliance for Women Film Composers
13% Percentage of female members in the Academy’s music branch

Many of the women composers contacted for this report believe that Karpman’s election to the Acad board of governors, and the growing numbers of women composers in the Academy, will help change the industry perception.

“We haven’t been in these groups,” Karpman says. “We have been denied the kind of access that others have had. People see you at Academy functions and it gives you a certain credibility. It means you are part of the elite of the motion picture business. That is a tremendous boost on every level.”

Cutler, a member of the Academy’s documentary branch, thinks these positive developments have offered “a window of opportunity to cultivate the possibilities. Women composers are jumping on board, and the up-and-coming young women are really enthusiastic. We seem to be an idea whose time has come.”

This year, Ringer-Ross says, the BMI-supported Sundance Composers Lab consisted of 50% women. “That’s a wonderful example of a program that has always embraced an agenda of inclusion. Now if only the rest of the world would follow that lead.”

“I do think there are more opportunities,” says Bostic, who is among a handful of African-American composers in the Alliance. “There are people who are visionary, and who do want to try different configurations of putting a team together. Hopefully they have a consciousness that embraces hiring people of color, women, people who are underrepresented. We have to demystify this notion that there is a hierarchy based on race and gender. It’s a dinosaur of a concept. And it’s not the truth.”

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