It’s been three years since “Captain Marvel,” with a worldwide box office take of $1.1 billion, became the biggest-grossing movie ever scored by a woman: Pinar Toprak.
Toprak, who also scored this year’s Netflix adventure “Slumberland,” is one of four female composers being talked about for 2022 awards. Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir has “Tár” and “Women Talking,” American Chanda Dancy has “Devotion” and French composer Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch has “Living.”
At least nine more women have scored movies of note this year, including Aska Matsumiya (“After Yang”), Isabella Summers (“Lady Chatterley’s Lover”), Amelia Warner (“Mr. Malcolm’s List”), Sharon Farber (“Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power”), Laura Karpman (“The Tree of Life”), Amanda Jones (“Art & Krimes by Krimes”), Anna Drubich (“Navalny”), Camille (“Corsage”) and Tanerélle (“Nanny”).
For many years, scoring movies was exclusively a male profession. Dancy, upon graduating from USC’s prestigious film scoring program in 2004, couldn’t even get a job as a composer’s assistant – and was actually told it was because she was female.
“I had a hard time at the beginning of my career just trying to find a place for myself,” Dancy says. “The expectation was, oh, are you a songwriter? A singer? I’m a thematic orchestral composer, but I don’t look like Beethoven. Or John Williams.”
That doesn’t happen now, she says. “People are hiring me for big, 100-piece orchestral scores. That’s really only happened in the last three or four years.”
Oscars for music have been handed out since 1934, but in all that time only six women have been nominated for composing original scores. Three have won (Rachel Portman for “Emma” in 1996, Anne Dudley for “The Full Monty” in 1997 and Guðnadóttir for “Joker” in 2019).
Last year’s nomination of “Encanto” composer Germaine Franco, the first Latina composer to be acknowledged by Oscar, was considered another breakthrough moment for women. Two — Guðnadóttir and Dancy — made this year’s 15-name Oscar shortlist for composers.
Toprak, who broke through that glass ceiling with a hugely successful Marvel movie score, concedes that the situation is “nowhere near where it needs to be just yet. But we have made tremendous progress. It’s just about the opportunity. We are in the room more, we are in the conversations more, and that is all we can ask.”
London-based Levienaise-Farrouch says she has seen a shift in the kinds of films she’s being offered. “Originally, I was mainly approached when they needed ‘a woman’s touch,’ and it was mostly working with female directors. [But] everybody’s attitude is changing. You’re not really confronted by sexism anymore; everything feels like it’s moving forward.”
What she finds disheartening are the statistics. “It’s difficult to stay entirely optimistic when, every time the data is published, it bursts your bubble.”
The latest Celluloid Ceiling study, prepared by San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, shows that women made up only 7% of composers working on the top 250 grossing films of 2021. That’s up from 5% in 2020, and from 6% in both 2019 and 2018.
But a closer look reveals a more depressing stat: Women made up just 3% of composers working on the top 100 films of 2021, a decline from 5% in 2020.
Dr. Martha Lauzen, founder and exec director of the center and keeper of these statistics, reports: “If we compare 2013 with 2021, the percentage of women composers working on the top 250 films increased by 5 percentage points. Even though the percentage more than tripled, 7% is still an absurdly low number. It is roughly on par with women’s representation as cinematographers.
“If more women are nominated for an Oscar this year, it may be attributed to their overperformance relative to their representation, or chalked up to an unusually good year for women who compose.
“Cinematographers and composers are heavily male-identified roles,” Lauzen notes. “It’s taken a massive amount of work and research over the past two decades to begin to shift the image of film directors. It will take a similar amount of effort to change our images of cinematographers and composers.”
Patty Macmillan, whose Allegro Talent Group represents such high-profile women composers as Guðnadóttir and “Loki” composer Natalie Holt, says promoting her clients is a good deal easier than it was a decade ago when she started.
“Studio film scores were stereotypically male-dominated jobs, and that really needed to change,” she says. “There were very few female trailblazers in this area, so it wasn’t easy getting the trust and confidence from studios and filmmakers … although if a powerful director was interested in a female composer and fought for her, the road was easier.
“That’s what happened with Hildur,” she recalls. “Todd Phillips heard her score for ‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado,’ felt her musical style would be perfect for ‘Joker,’ and gave her the chance to shine. Unbeknownst to him, he was paving the way for more women to achieve what had become so normal for male composers: a seat at the table.”
Guðnadóttir’s Oscar win made a difference, Macmillan believes. Calls began to come in asking specifically for women. Holt became the first woman to score a “Star Wars” project (“Obi-Wan Kenobi”); M. Night Shyamalan heard Herdis Stefánsdóttir’s reel and hired her for his upcoming “Knock at the Cabin”; Tamar-kali (“Mudbound”) is now scoring MGM’s “Flint Strong.”
Women filmmakers are more likely to hire women composers, she says, “as they can identify with the struggle to achieve recognition and genuinely want to support other women.” Similarly, younger filmmakers are less likely to discriminate against women “as they have been raised in a more open and inclusive environment without the older filmmakers’ dogma.”
The Alliance for Women Film Composers, founded in 2014, now boasts an estimated 600 members from around the world. President Catherine Joy is pleased with the number of women composers being cited for awards this season, and, she says, “we’re seeing a lot of inroads into the world of documentary and indie film scores, and certainly television this year,” including Holt’s “Obi-Wan Kenobi” and Laura Karpman’s “Ms. Marvel.”
But she agrees with Lauzen that women-composer representation among top-grossing films is disappointingly low. “There needs to be a consistent push to continue opening the doors to more people, and really changing that landscape.”
The AWFC is talking with studio executives as well as indie filmmakers about improving opportunities for women composers. “So progress needs to be celebrated, certainly, but the job is far from over, both in the area of gender parity but inclusivity in general,” says Joy. “There’s just so much work to be done.”
Adds Levienaise-Farrouch: “I am hoping with a new generation, the mindset is going to shift and, the more years go by, the more we’ll see more women scoring films — the same people who go and watch the films and live the stories that we are talking about in those films.”