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Success of ‘Wonder Woman’ Could Pave Way for More Female Directors

The critical and commercial success of “Wonder Woman,” the first female superhero movie directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins, could be the catalyst that turns the tide for female directors angling to helm major studio films. Keeping the momentum going, however, will be a big challenge.

Although summer looks to be a strong season for women directors, nearly halfway into the year just a handful of female-led films have been announced by the majors. At this juncture, Sony Pictures has more movies helmed by women in its lineup than its competitors. Warner Bros. and Paramount, have not yet unveiled any new women-led films so far this year, and both declined to name projects in the works.

Overall, the studios say they’re working to hire more women as directors, but they have lots of ground to cover to even begin approaching parity. In 2016, men made up more than 90% of directors who worked on the 250 highest-grossing domestic releases, according to a recent study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. The report found that rather than improving on previous years, the rate of female directors — 7% — dropped by two percentage points from 2015.

While Warners, the studio behind “Wonder Woman,” has not yet officially greenlit any new female-directed films this year, Variety has learned it is close to pushing the button on “The Kitchen,” a mob story set in 1970s New York, directed by Andrea Berloff. A spokesperson for Paramount, run by new CEO Jim Gianopulos, said the studio will “continue to seek out opportunities to work with a wide array of filmmakers across multiple mediums.” This summer, the studio is releasing “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,” co-directed by Bonni Cohen.

Disney has four upcoming films led by female directors, including two announced this year: “Mulan,” by Niki Caro, and “Captain Marvel,” directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, expected in 2018 and 2019, respectively. “A Wrinkle in Time,” directed by Ava DuVernay, is due March 2018, and “Frozen 2,” with Jennifer Lee in the director’s chair, will be released in 2019. The studio’s production chief, Sean Bailey, said Disney has long embraced empowered female characters. Hiring women to helm those features is the next natural step: “It only makes sense that we really work hard to make sure we have more women behind the camera. We recognize it’s an imperative for the film industry.”

Meanwhile, Jennifer Yuh Nelson, director of the “Kung Fu Panda” sequels, is shooting “The Darkest Minds” for 20th Century Fox, the only female-helmed film the studio greenlit or acquired in the past 12 months. Its indie label, Fox Searchlight, has three upcoming movies directed by women: the documentary “Step,” by Amanda Lipitz; “Battle of the Sexes,” by Valerie Faris with Jonathan Dayton; and “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” by Marielle Heller. A Fox official said the studio added about 10 films with female directors to its pipeline over the last year.

Universal has two forthcoming releases with female directors on its schedule: The third installment of the “Pitch Perfect” franchise, from Trish Sie, is due in late December, and in April, the studio plans to release “The Pact,” directed by Kay Cannon. Focus Pictures, Universal’s specialty banner, will release two films this summer with female directors, including Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled,” which earned her the director award at the Cannes Film Festival. “Mary Queen of Scots,” by Josie Rourke, is slated for production this summer for Focus.

Sony has a spate of films helmed by women, including Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “Spider-Man” spinoff, “Silver Sable and Black Cat.” The release this week of “Rough Night,” the first R-rated comedy directed by a woman in nearly two decades, marks the feature directorial debut of “Broad City” director Lucia Aniello. Elizabeth Banks is directing a “Charlie’s Angels” reboot, expected in 2019, and Catherine Hardwicke will helm a remake of “Miss Bala,” the 2011 Mexican film about a beauty pageant contestant forced to work for a crime boss. Sony’s Tri-Star Pictures has tapped Michelle MacLaren for “The Nightingale,” a period piece based on the novel by Kristin Hannah, due in 2018.

Sony says it has moved deliberately to diversify its slate of directors, in part because it makes good business sense to meet consumer demand. “With ‘Silver Sable and Black Cat,’ not only is [Prince-Bythewood] the first African-American woman doing a Marvel movie, but her whole approach was just so cool,” said Columbia Pictures president Sanford Panitch. “She really had a great, original approach to it, and that’s clearly what the audience wants to see.”

Prince-Bythewood was happy to put the lie to stereotypes. “There is a narrative that women do not have the desire to make tentpole films, and worse, that we can’t,” she said. “Both are false. A good director is a good director. And the truth is, women can bring a fresh aesthetic.”

Jennifer Warren, co-founder of the Alliance of Women Directors, said she senses new momentum in the struggle for gender parity in Hollywood. “I do think the tide is turning,” she said, acknowledging the historically poor showing by studios in hiring women, even in recent years. “It is moving.”

With so few female-directed tentpoles, women face sky-high expectations that don’t necessarily apply to male directors, said CAA talent agent Maha Dakhil. While “Wonder Woman” “hit it out of the park, you can’t count on every single female filmmaker or any filmmaker to get it right every time,” she said. “We need to get to a place where the pressure is just the same for both genders.  … We should be allowed to make bad movies too. Then we can really talk about the fact that we’ve arrived.”

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