When Kees van Oostrum, president of the American Society of Cinematographers, was at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018, he noticed that many documentaries had been shot by women. But he was also aware of the dismal number of female lensers hired for feature films.

“I realized we had to do something,” he says.

That realization led to the creation of a documentary category at ASC’s annual awards; the first such honor is to be handed out Jan. 25. ASC, an invitation-only organization of more than 400 veteran cinematographers, has just 18 currently active female members.

The logic, says Van Oostrum, is simple: “It’s not that females can’t get work,” he says. “There’s a lack of awareness in the market to hire female cinematographers.”

Van Oostrum gets an A for effort — and perhaps this is the sort of thing that will move the needle a bit. But Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, who’s been tallying the presence of below-the-line women (plus directors and writers) in Hollywood films since 1998 and publishes her Celluloid Ceiling report each year, might see it differently. In her 2018 report (2019’s comes out in January), of the top 250 feature films released last year, just 4% were shot by women.

The percentage of female cinematographers shooting the top 250 films in 1998? Also 4%.

“Hollywood only changes when it has no choice,” Lauzen says. “If there was a will to change, nothing would prevent the industry from setting up some kind of industry-wide organization that would be concerned with issues of inclusion and diversity.”

Cinematographers are not alone; news for women is discouraging across the board. There are slight gains (producers: 26% of the top 250 films in 2018 vs. 24% in 1998; writers: 16% in 2018 vs. 13% in 1998), which are matched by slight losses in other areas (directors: 8% in 2018 vs. 9% in 1998).

Editors are also experiencing stagnation in female hires (20% in 1998 vs. 21% in 2018) — and the reason why remains difficult to quantify. Cathy Repola, national executive director for the Editors Guild, IATSE Local 700, suggests it’s hard to separate the chicken from the egg: are women just not choosing to enter the field, or is the field choosing to keep
them from entering?

The anecdotes she supplies also indicate the murkiness of the “why”: Repola recalls how at a recent summit each woman editor on the stage had some version of being told an executive producer was “uncomfortable with a woman editor.” In addition, “Some of them have told me they feel pigeonholed,” she says. “They’re told women are better at editing comedies — not so much blockbusters.”

A telling recollection; it’s impossible to represent in numbers, but a preponderance of evidence indicates that where power — or the perception of it — lies in Hollywood, men dominate. In this case, comedy is seen as less important as an action-packed blockbuster.

Perceptions affect hiring, says Lauzen. “When you think of a cinematographer or a director, what image pops into your head? White, male. Those images in our heads impact hiring decisions and confidence in women.”

Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the animation field has — relatively speaking — seen greater numbers of women finding work. Jason MacLeod, business representative for the Animation Guild, says, as of November, women make up 29% of workers at union animation studios. And CalArts, a frequent supplier of studio animation hires, says its female-to-male student ratio is 69% to 30% (1% did not identify gender).

Why animation? It’s a big question, but Marge Dean, president of Women in Animation and head of studio for Crunchyroll, has a theory. “People don’t take animation seriously,” she says. “That’s changing, because of the growth of anime and adult animation.”

Of course, with interest spiking in animation comes a new problem: maintaining even this level of gender parity. “I think about that all the time,” she adds. “We have to keep beating the drum and reminding people of the unconscious biases in the system.”

Some of animation’s boost has come from television, which, across the board, has been better than film for women. Aside from having a shorter career path track, TV is being made at an exponentially greater volume than yearly film output, which means there are more jobs. Meanwhile, ballooning film budgets mean risk-averse studios go with known quantities.

But it’s not just about getting hired, says Maija Burnett, director of the character animation program at CalArts. “What happens when women are given the reins isn’t always included in the discussion. It’s one thing to put women into positions of respect, it’s another for them to be heard and listened to.”

Lauzen isn’t the only person reporting numbers for women’s roles. Stacy L. Smith, founder and director of USC Annenberg’s Inclusion Initiative, released a report in September that largely echoed Lauzen’s in the areas of directors and writers, though she focused on the top 100 grossing films.

But not long after that report came out, Smith was projecting the situation turning a corner: “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,” she told Variety in the fall.
Smith was unavailable to speak with Variety for this report. But aside from Annenberg’s sample size being smaller than Lauzen’s (Lauzen does look at top 100 and top 500 films yearly, but prefers top 250 films for various reasons), Smith’s enthusiasm seemed to be reserved for hires rather than completed productions.

“Just because they’ve been hired doesn’t mean they’re going to make the films,” says director Maria Giese, who in 2013-2015, was a category rep for the women’s steering committee at the Directors Guild of America. Even if Smith’s numbers prove accurate, “it’s still outrageous; we should be directing 50% of studio features.”

Acknowledges Writers Guild of America West’s director of inclusion and equity Tery Lopez: “We are seeing women writing more films. Women are hired to write projects. It doesn’t mean they’ll see the light of day.”

In any case, One year of uptick in any area doesn’t set a precedent, says Lauzen, who predicts 2019 will show an increase of female directors, in part because 2018 was such a bad year.

“We need three years of consecutive, year-to-year growth in order to say things are getting better,” she says. “We have no evidence at this time to suggest that we have experienced a profound shift.”

Regardless of numbers and methodology, or high-profile names hired for high-profile projects, no field can yet claim gender parity in Hollywood’s feature industry. Some companies are taking steps: ASC’s Van Oostrom says the org’s Vision Committee held a networking and hiring mixer for minority members and 15 Netflix executives, resulting in multiple hires.

But for those looking at the long view, the most encouraging thing is that people are having these discussions at all.

“I am hopeful, I am not optimistic,” Lauzen says. “This issue has been doing a slow build over the last 20 years, and the regular release of the numbers has made it an issue. That’s been helped by changes in demographics in this country, and the attendant expectation that there should be greater inclusion. That is progress.”

But don’t expect massive changes any time soon, if at all. “Social change is very hard, and very slow,” she says. “It doesn’t travel in a straight line.”