Heroines of Cinema: Mimi Leder and the Impossible Standard for Women Directors in Hollywood

Heroines of Cinema: Mimi Leder and the Impossible Standard for Women Directors in Hollywood

If you were a Hollywood studio, who would you hire to direct your $170 million action tentpole? A director with two blockbuster action hits to their name, or the team behind the commercial flop “Welcome to Collinwood” and the critical flop “You, Me & Dupree”. The answer, for Marvel Studios and their recent Captain America sequel, was the latter.

By all accounts, Anthony and Joe Russo did a great job directing “The Winter Soldier”. But the duo’s feature film track record was not evidence of this potential. I am certain that had a woman directed “Welcome to Collinwood” and “You, Me & Dupree”, she would not have been in the running to direct a major Marvel film. And the name that makes me confident of this? Mimi Leder.

Mimi Leder is a true trailblazer. The first ever woman accepted onto AFI’s cinematography course, she discovered a passion for directing during her studies and decided to make the leap. For over a decade after graduating, she worked in the television industry as a script supervisor, before eventually getting a directing break, just a few weeks after giving birth. “My breasts would engorge and I had ice packs on them and my arms folded over them, trying to direct,” she recalls. “It was hilarious”.

From there she progressed gradually, eventually becoming one of the principal directors on “ER”. She has been credited with pioneering and establishing the steadicam long-take that became the show’s signature style and influenced dozens of shows in its wake. But for Leder, her award-winning work also led to attention from the biggest name of them all.

In 1997 Steven Spielberg, a producer on “ER”, asked Leder to direct “The Peacemaker”. A $50 million high-profile action thriller of the type almost never handed to women directors, Leder herself was surprised by the approach. But according to her, Spielberg convinced her by assuring her: “you’re directing action on “ER” every day”.

Indeed, Spielberg was so confident in his choice that, before the film was released, he then hired Leder to direct “Deep Impact”, an even bigger disaster blockbuster. Thankfully, his hunch paid off. “The Peacemaker” made $110 million worldwide, while “Deep Impact” took $350 million, despite being released in the same summer as “Armageddon”. Mimi Leder was officially a hot property.

But then what happened? To put it bluntly, Leder directed a flop – “Pay it Forward”, starring Haley Joel Osment, Helen Hunt and Kevin Spacey, all three coming off the back of some serious late 90s acclaim. Sadly, for them, the script wasn’t up to it, and the film’s ending stank. Audiences and critics alike gave the thumbs down.

But it’s not like directing a flop didn’t put Leder in good company. After all, Francis Ford Coppola directed “Jack”. Stephen Soderbergh famously followed “Sex, Lies and Videotape” with FIVE underperforming features before he re-emerged with “Out of Sight”. Oliver Stone has directed a triumphant string of flops in the past decade, from “Alexander” and “World Trade Center” to “W.” and “Wall Street 2”. They still let him direct “Savages”. Guess what? It sucked.

But Mimi Leder hadn’t just directed a flop. She’d had the temerity to be a woman who directed a flop. The consequences were immediate, as top level scripts simply stopped being offered to her. “I was in movie jail,” she has drily noted. “It was painful climbing back from that”.

In the subsequent fourteen years, Leder has directed just one feature film (2009’s little-seen “Thick as Thieves”). And yet her track record in features stands as evidence of her under-utilized potential. Her career trajectory seems evidence that women directors face an impossible standard – executives are seemingly just waiting for them to make a mistake, at which point they can be deemed unsuitable, unreliable and unhireable. But failure is part of filmmaking, and an inevitable consequence of risk-taking. In the case of someone like Aronofsky (a director often ripe for a stinker), it’s almost seen as noble.

So how do women get round this dismal double standard? One answer was proposed in an article last week by Monika Bartyzel at The Week which discussed the importance of female filmmakers being supported by male mentors as well as women. It’s easy to get upset that say, Amy Pascal, head of Sony Pictures, isn’t doing more to support women directors. But who would be more susceptible to lose their job if they hired a woman on what turned out to be a massive flop – Pascal, or one of her male counterparts? We all know the answer.

Spielberg was clearly fundamental to Mimi Leder’s initial breakthrough as a feature director. In fact, numerous successful women directors have had connections to powerful men in the industry – Nicole Holofcener’s stepfather was Woody Allen’s producer, Penelope Spheeris was herself Albert Brooks’ producer (and first cousin of director Costa Gavras), Nora Ephron’s parents were Oscar-nominated screenwriters, and Sofia Coppola’s heritage needs no introduction.

Invoking such connections is not always popular, as nobody wants to look like they’re holding up a successful woman in film and pointing to the man behind her. But that’s not what I’m doing here. Talent sustains a career, but you need breaks and opportunities to get there. Indeed, it would be unfair to all those female filmmakers who don’t benefit from such connections not to mention them, because the old adage remains true: who you know matters. And in a climate where half the industry is seemingly looking for a reason not to hire you, it really matters.

It’s time to put the pressure on everyone with power and influence in the industry – but especially those who benefit from male privilege – to get to know the female talent out there, and then get hiring. The next Mimi Leder is out there. And while we’re at it, so is Mimi.

Heroines of Cinema is a bi-weekly column written by Matthew Hammett Knott, a writer and filmmaker based in London. Follow him on Twitter.

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T. Ruth

Such a great director… Even though all the films she worked on were terrible. How? Oh yea, she’s a woman.

Nancy Nigrosh

Great article, thanks… it's relevant to highlight though that Mimi has in fact steadily been working in TV.


Why do you make it out to be like all women want to be directors.Maybe majority of women don't want to be directors like the majority of men don't want to be nurses.It's just how it is.There are a lot of great female directors like Jane Campion,Debra Granik,Kathryn Bigelow.All of these women had to prove themselves like all of the other up-and-coming directors to get where they are.They did not get hand outs.Another great writer and director is Lake Bell who had a great first film.You want people to just hand these jobs to them.They need to develop a style by making shorts like all directors do and then build on that.All of these women got the opportunity like Lake bell or Debra Granik because they showed that they know how they are going to shoot. The problem with the film industry is that if you don't impress them with your first film,they will forget about you:Coen Brothers,Paul Thomas Anderson,Christopher Nolan,Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese,George Lucas.All of these people had to hit the ball the first time on base so everyone knows that they can hit a double,triple,or even a homerun. People aren't just given the oppurtunity,they have to earn or be rich enough to fund their own films like the women you listed in your article who had the connections and rich enough to fund their own movies.So stop complaining about rich white women having the opportunity to direct something when most of Hollywood is just nepotism and bored rich white women like Sofia Coppola directing one good movie(Lost in Translation) out of about 9.You never higlighted that they are all white women.Feminism always stops starts and stops at white women and that will always be the pattern for liberal scumbags.

WGA & DGA Member

The reality of Hollywood is that men fail up and women fail out. It is appalling. I can't tell you how many times I've been in staffing meetings or up for writing assignments where the phrase, "We had a woman but she didn't work out, so we probably won't hire another," comes up.

That said, the reporting in this piece is remarkably poor. PAY IT FORWARD was one of the hottest spec sales in Hollywood, with every buyer bidding on it. Then, Helen Hunt and Kevin Spacey and their giant egos got on board, and instead of keeping them in check and directing the script she was hired to, Mimi Leder let them change everything that was good about it. Screenwriter Leslie Dixon has written a fantastic essay on the nightmare of making this movie (from a script that, if acted and directed as written probably would have won them all Oscars — mu opinion, having read the original, not Leslie's). So please keep that in mind when you toss out a phrase like "the script wasn't up to it." The script was more than up to it, it was the other elements — including the director — who failed the script.

Judith Vogelsang

Bravo! A much-needed article that should be required reading for women directors and those who aspire to be. Sadly, it speaks the truth openly. Those of us who've worked in the film business know these truths first or second-hand. Almost no one ever speaks of them, however. It's been this way for decades and decades. Now the question is: what can really be done about it?


So I guess you're just ignoring the hundreds of hours of success the Russos have had directing tv shows like Community, Arrested Development and countless other shows. If you're argument is tjis person did good and this person did bad, maybe try using an example that doesnt require a liberal alteration of the truth to support your argument.
there should be more female directors in movies, but this kind of lazy writing does nothing but foster the idea that women have people willing to fudge the truth to make it seem like theyre deserving of the job.

Maria Burton

Excellent article, Matthew! Thoughtful and evenhanded. As a director who is also a woman, it amazes me how many people both in and out of the industry have no idea how impossibly low the stats are for women directors to be hired onto big budget feature films. We need to keep educating people for things to change, and get more women telling stories, which is fundamentally important to our culture.

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