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After Decades of Stagnation, Women Film Directors See Major Gains in Hollywood

In January, Stacy L. Smith — the founder of USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which tracks representation in front of and behind the camera — published a report about female film directors. Her findings could not have been more bleak. Of the 112 directors behind the 100 top-grossing movies of 2018, only 3.6% were women. Even worse, that number was down from the year before, when women represented 7.3% of the top 100. To emphasize the blighted landscape, Smith and her research team put their key finding in bold: “The percentage of female directors has not changed over time.”

Ten months later, based on the year’s releases so far and what’s still to come, Smith is making a wholly different declaration. “It looks for 2019 like at least 12 movies — which is an all-time high — will be directed by women across the top 100 films,” Smith says. That number could go as high as 14, she adds.

“I’m happy to report that a new day has come,” Smith says. “Hiring practices have changed. I just got chill bumps telling you this!”

When Greta Gerwig, whose latest feature, “Little Women,” will be released on Christmas Day, was told by a Variety reporter that Smith has concluded that things have finally turned around for women directors, she began to shout. ”Have they really? Have they really?! That’s wonderful. Oh, that’s wonderful!” Gerwig yelled happily. “Someone just asked me about that, and I said, ‘Every year I feel better, and then that Annenberg study comes out, and you realize we’ve made no progress. I’m so thrilled that there’s actual progress!”

Yes, there has been progress, with movies like “Captain Marvel” (co-directed by Anna Boden) and “Hustlers” (Lorene Scafaria) leading the charge at the box office. Still to come this year are “Frozen 2” (directed by Jennifer Lee) — sure to be a blockbuster — Elizabeth Banks’ “Charlie’s Angels” reboot and prestige films that may also be hits, such as Kasi Lemmons’ “Harriet,” Marielle Heller’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” Gerwig’s “Little Women” and — for once — quite a few more.

Given that the percentage of women directors has fluctuated year to year, it may be too soon to declare a sea change. But Smith maintains that in looking ahead to 2020, this year’s numbers aren’t just a blip. “2019 won’t be a one-off,” she says. “We’re moving — finally — in the right direction, toward more inclusion behind the camera.”

It’s been a long, painful road to this more hopeful place, and Variety spoke with 10 women directors whose movies have come out, or will be released, in 2019 about the evolution of what appears to be a positive trend line.

The groundwork was laid more than four years ago. In 2015, the ACLU sent a letter filled with damning statistics to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, calling upon the federal agency to investigate the “systemic failure to hire women directors” across film and television. Today, the EEOC investigation seems to have stalled; a spokesperson for the agency wouldn’t comment on, confirm or deny that an investigation continues. But four years ago, the publicity around the ACLU letter was an attention-grabbing shot across the bow that paved the way for something even more seismic: the post-Harvey Weinstein reckoning in fall 2017 that quickly led to a broader conversation about women in Hollywood.

The resulting #MeToo movement, and the founding of Time’s Up, led women and their allies to call for systemic change: in job opportunities, in pay and in the kinds of stories that are told on screen and who is at their center. Studio executives were suddenly self-conscious about looking obstructive, as the numbers told an incontestable story of active discrimination over the years — always, actually. Most important, the movement forged an activist community determined to transform the entertainment industry from top to bottom, and those activists went directly to the studios and agencies to make their demands.

“When you shine a light on it, you realize that there are things that are absolutely perplexing and ridiculous.”
Kasi Lemmons, Director

“We’ve been talking about it for such a long time — and now we were talking in a big way, and people were listening, you know?” Lemmons says. “It took acts of horror. But at least people were talking about it.

“And I think that that’s been very, very healthy, because when you shine a light on it, you realize that there are things that are absolutely perplexing and ridiculous,” she continues. “Especially pay disparity, you know? And work disparity. I mean, it makes no sense. There’s no way to justify it.”

Jennifer Lee, the Oscar-winning writer and director of “Frozen” — who became chief creative officer at Walt Disney Animation Studios in June 2018 after John Lasseter stepped down because of sexual misconduct allegations against him — sees the shift in practical terms.

“You come in, and you set a vision that’s important to you. You say we want the films we create to reflect the world we live in, and to be made by the people of that world,” Lee says. “You have to say: ‘This is a goal.’ I think what was fantastic was you don’t know what reaction you’re going to get — growing pains, adjustments. And there were none. Everyone was just ready.”

For Gerwig, the #MeToo revolution sparked a more emotional catharsis, as she watched the intergenerational bonding among women who came together to say, as she puts it, “We will be doing this no more.” Gerwig adds, “And I think that was something that was very moving to me, and continues to be very moving to me. Sometimes it takes that — that all at once, everybody is coming awake.”

Being awake doesn’t mean forgetting. If the numbers for women directors are to increase every year, it’s more important than ever to acknowledge the hurdles of the past.

Movies are hard to get made under any circumstances, but the way women are told no can illustrate larger problems. Sophia Takal, whose “Black Christmas” this year will be the first widely released Blumhouse film directed by a woman, was informed her second feature, “Always Shine,” wouldn’t work because “people don’t want to watch movies about actresses,” she says. Heller struggled to get her 2015 debut feature, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” produced because its main character, a 15-year-old, likes to have sex. “People, even with the best intentions, wanted me to make sure that she ended up with a guy at the end in order to feel good about the story,” Heller says. “Like, a nice kid from school.” Jill Culton, the writer-director of “Abominable,” says, “For women, one of the things that’s tougher is you pitch a story that has a lot of heart, and suddenly it’s too girly or skews young.”

“Captain Marvel’s” Boden, who has worked with her filmmaking partner, Ryan Fleck, since they met at NYU, realized as the deluge of harassment stories flowed forth, that she had been “shielded” from that behavior by Fleck — “because I did have somebody next to me,” she says.

Marielle Heller with Tom Hanks on the set of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”
Courtesy of LACEY TERRELL

But that doesn’t mean Boden has been immune to experiencing sexism. Their writer-director credits are identical, yet sometimes they would meet in “a roomful of men when everybody is directing their questions to Ryan,” Boden says. “And it felt like I was invisible.”

Such slights are meaningful but intangible — and then there are the things said to your face. Lulu Wang, who wanted her second feature (after 2014’s “Posthumous”) to be the deeply personal film “The Farewell,” found herself arguing with financiers about the story’s perspective. Wang, who is Chinese American, says they were confused. Was it an American movie or a Chinese one? Oh, and it has a wedding in it! “Multiple producers called it ‘My Big Fat Chinese Wedding,’” she says.

Wang finally found the right producers after telling the story for an episode of “This American Life” in April 2016. Still, she had to continuously check herself along the way to make sure her vision wasn’t being compromised — and that she wasn’t compromising herself. “Because you go into it with a sense of scarcity, and you feel like you’re fighting for crumbs; if somebody throws you a crumb, you take it,” Wang says.

In the years after Lemmons’ acclaimed directorial debut, 1997’s “Eve’s Bayou,” now considered a modern classic, she was sometimes thrown crumbs. “I got hired to write many, many scripts,” says Lemmons. “It might even be good for the company to say they have something in development about, you know, a black woman. But actually getting the film financed is a completely other animal. And maybe they weren’t so serious about this project. And that happens all the time — that I’m a little bit fooled.”

More insidious was when Lemmons would have a meeting she thought had gone well, and then she would hear otherwise from her agent. “My enthusiasm can be mistaken for anger,” she says. “You know, I was excited! And I realized that being excited, there was a way that it could be infectious and get other people excited — and there was a way it could be off-putting.”

Alma Har’el, the director of the forthcoming “Honey Boy,” won’t even go to pitch meetings anymore. “There were a few projects that I was really passionate about and interested in, and I felt that people took my ideas and gave them to a male director,” she says. “So I stopped doing that.”

Then there are the decisions that were just plain stupid. As it heads toward $100 million at the domestic box office, “Hustlers” seems undeniable, perhaps inevitable. But screenwriter Scafaria struggled to get it made after she was hired to direct in November 2017 — theoretically, right when Hollywood was trying to course-correct. “But even though everyone was saying how important it is to be representative and to be inclusive, it still felt difficult to really get that support in dollars,” Scafaria says.

Script supervisor Margery Kimbrough, Cynthia Erivo and director Kasi Lemmons collaborate on the set of “Harriet”
Courtesy of Glen Wilson/Focus Features

From its casting to getting STX Entertainment to pick up “Hustlers” after Annapurna Pictures dropped it, the process was a battle. “To me, this movie felt like a no-brainer,” Scafaria says. “But it felt risky when talking about it in a boardroom.”

Some of those stumbling blocks might not arise today, now that there is a new, if belated, understanding that women on screen can be knotty, perhaps even dislikable, and audiences might still be interested in them. Netflix, an enterprise on the vanguard of what viewers want, will have premiered a staggering 27 movies directed by women by year’s end, a company representative tells Variety. Some of them are foreign-language acquisitions branded as Netflix originals; several are documentaries, including Beyoncé’s “Homecoming.” But others, like Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s “Someone Great,” Amy Poehler’s “Wine Country” and Nahnatchka Khan’s “Always Be My Maybe,” are domestic narrative features perfectly tailored to the streaming audience — and may not have been given a chance by major studios in theatrical release. Of Netflix’s upcoming films that have so far been announced, at least 20 have female directors, including offerings from Dee Rees (“The Last Thing He Wanted”), Liz Garbus (“Lost Girls”) and Gina Prince-Bythewood (“The Old Guard”).

When we talked, Wang had just watched the Netflix limited series “Unbelievable” — the story of two detectives (Toni Collette and Merritt Wever) tracking down a serial rapist — which was developed by Susannah Grant, Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon. “What a great job they did really centering the women in the story,” Wang says.

When it comes to employing women in key behind-the-scenes jobs, television is ahead of film. According to a report released in September by Martha M. Lauzen of the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, for the 2018-19 television season, 26% of directors were women. (In the more important role for TV of creator, 25% were women.) The television industry, with its quicker turnaround, has been able to create pipelines for underrepresented talent to get jobs — and also to mandate that their numbers improve.

But Wang believes that film is heading in that direction as well. “Box office is proving that telling stories from different perspectives is what the audience wants,” she says. “Audiences are demanding different stories from different perspectives — and that is driving part of the change.”

Heller thinks so too, and says that audiences, now aware of the behind-the-scenes discrimination that led directly to sustained monotony on screen, are challenging the studios. “Things like the Bechdel test are part of the zeitgeist,” Heller says, citing the now famous measurement for women on screen. “Whether Hollywood really wants to or not, the public is watching — and saying do better.”

Har’el came up through the music video and advertising world, and remembers noticing that she was always the only woman bidding for ad jobs against white men. When brewing company Stella Artois told her she was the first woman to direct one of its ads, she was struck. “I think every woman has that moment in her life where she realizes that it wasn’t her — she wasn’t crazy,” Har’el says. “The blindfold gets removed, and it’s ‘Oh, this is systemic! There’s a reason all of my male peers have already bought a house and have been making commercials for five years.’”

Determined to do something about it, in 2016 Har’el created Free the Bid, a database that helps brands find women directors — and also extracted a pledge from brands and ad agencies to have at least one woman director bidding on commercial jobs. (Ad Age called the site “groundbreaking.”) It’s been so successful, Har’el says, that on Oct. 17, she is launching the similarly modeled Free the Work for film and television directors. Talent will be searchable, but the site’s algorithm will also create shareable playlists of filmmakers, à la Spotify.

“Audiences are demanding different stories from different perspectives, and that is driving part of the change.”
Lulu Wang, Director

“It’s going to really allow talent discovery of underrepresented creators — not just women, also people of color and trans-identifying and nonbinary creators,” Har’el says. “I know I go to a lot of meetings and hear, ‘All the great directors are already working.’ And that’s the sentence we don’t want to hear anymore.”

Har’el says she is excited to “live in a time of opportunity” for women directors. But she feels moved “to share it with other people, and make sure that you’re not enjoying it by yourself.” Free the Work creates an old boys’ club for the digital age, but composed of women, people of color and LGBTQ people — a different type of network to say the least.

Smith was able to test the viability of the 4% Challenge (the initiative calls on the creative community to commit to working with a woman director in the next 18 months to boost that percentage) that she, Time’s Up and Tessa Thompson launched in January through her own network. “Simply by individuals and companies accepting the challenge, the whole goal was to radically shift the numbers to create a notable jump for the first time,” Smith says.

The creation of these concrete tools to help women directors is one thing; the communities they’re forming are another. “All the women who’ve directed animated films, we’re like a band of sisters,” says “Abominable’s” Culton.

Heller and Lemmons — who met through Sundance Labs — separately told Variety the story of seeing each other at a female filmmakers’ dinner at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, where Lemmons’ “Harriet” and Heller’s ”A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” premiered. “We both were going into that festival with so much anticipation,” Heller says. “And so it felt like we could really see each other in a very clear way. And we just took time to talk through how it was all feeling, and what we can do to stay calm through those things.”

“We put our heads together,” Lemmons says. “Just a moment of giving each other strength — that community is very important.”

Women directors have many battles to wage before they achieve true parity. But theirs is certainly an expanding group — and with that comes more varied expertise.

“I feel like there’s a real community of women who are calling each other about, ‘How do you do this with kids?’” Gerwig says. “I’ve had two different women directors call me to ask about directing pregnant or directing with small children. I’ve called other female directors about directing with small children. It’s not the only question. But it’s a question.

“But the fact that the question is being posed, and people are turning to each other about it, is really moving to me,” Gerwig continues. “And it helps that sense of feeling that you don’t have to pretend to not be a woman to be a director, which is what I think a lot of people were doing. I certainly understood that: Oh, don’t worry. I’m not a woman — I just look like one! It seems to be changing. And that’s marvelous.”

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