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Women Behind the Camera: Fighting Gender Bias with Data

By Colin Brown | Indiewire May 16, 2014 at 4:36PM

Colin Brown of Filmonomics explains how data shows that women-led film projects fare well at the box office.
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Jane Campion at Cannes Film Festival
Cannes Film Festival Jane Campion and her female Cannes jury members

In the following article, from Colin Brown, Editorial Director of the film financing and dealmaking website Slated.com, explains how market data bolsters the fact that we need more women-led film projects. To read more from Brown, check out his Filmonomics blog on Slated.com.

Jane Campion remains the only woman director ever to get a hand on the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival when her film "The Piano" shared the Palme d’Or with "Farewell My Concubine" back in 1993. This week, the same New Zealand-born filmmaker notched up another Cannes milestone of sorts by becoming the first woman other than an actress to serve as the festival's Jury President. But even if her jury ends up bestowing laurels on one of the two solitary women filmmakers in competition this year, Campion herself remains unimpressed by such belated dents on the celluloid ceiling. "You'd have to say there's some inherent sexism in the industry," she lamented at Wednesday’s news conference on the Croisette. "Excuse me, gentlemen," Campion then added, looking across at some of her fellow jurors sitting alongside her, "but the guys are eating all the cake."

"Why does Hollywood’s next generation of anointed tentpole-carriers have to be so predictably male?"

The world will get a stomping reminder of just how mouthwatering – and off-the-menu  - that cake can be when "Godzilla" is unleashed in theater circuits this weekend. When they looked for someone to breathe fresh fire into this $160 million reboot, Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros turned to British filmmaker Gareth Edwards, whose only previous film was a $500,000 sci-fi called "Monsters" for which he acted as writer, director, cinematographer and visual effects artist using just off-the-shelf equipment. 

Edwards' stratospheric trajectory into the giant leagues follows that of Marc Webb, whose own directorial reward for making the 2009 Sundance hit film "(500) Days Of Summer" was not just one, but two, Spiderman sequels over the last couple of years. And there is a further career catapault in the making: having won the screenwriting prize at Sundance in 2012 with his $750,000 debut film "Safety Not Guaranteed," Colin Trevorrow was handed the directorial keys to nothing less than "Jurassic World," which is now set for planetary release next June. Gifted as all these upstart filmmakers no doubt are, why does Hollywood’s next generation of anointed tentpole-carriers have to be so predictably male? What about the other 50% of those who attend film schools as budding directors, the female half – why not them?

That's the same billion-dollar question posed by Dan Cogan during one of our recent Filmonomics Talks in New York. "You can't name a situation where a major franchise has been given to a filmmaker who did a film for under $5 million who is a woman - and yet you can name half a dozen who are men," said Cogan. "The bottom line is very simple: people don't trust women to make money. And this is as true of women running film studios as it is of the men in charge. They don't trust women directors to make commercial movies. The numbers are astonishing and shocking. You are more likely to be a woman nuclear engineer than you are a woman film director. You are also more likely to be a woman running a Fortune 500 company. It's shameful."

READ MORE: How 'Bitch Pack' Is Fighting for More Women-Directed Projects

Speaking alongside Cogan at our monthly Soho House event was Jonathan Rubenstein, who enjoyed Sundance success this year with a woman-directed film, Maya Forbes' "Infinitely Polar Bear." But while that comedy-drama scored a multi-territory sale to Sony Pictures Classics, Rubenstein says the trailing assumption among so many of his investors is that there is just maybe one woman director capable of making the kind of suspense thrillers and action films that can play well globally. This is a self-fulfilling myth, of course. "This year at Sundance, the most sought after horror film was made by a woman," said Cogan, referring to Jennifer Kent, the writer-director behind the Australian psychological chiller "The Babadook," which was executive produced by Jonathan Page and Jeff Harrison. "So there are women out there who want to do these sorts of films, but not getting access to capital. And if they thought they could get access to that capital, there would be more of them," he added.

The Babadook
"The Babadook."

In an effort to provide just such capital, Cogan has teamed up with co-founders Wendy Ettinger, Geralyn Dreyfous and Julie Parker Benello to create Gamechanger Films, the first for-profit film fund dedicated exclusively to financing narrative features directed by women. Mary Jane Skalski is a senior advisor to the fund; Mynette Louie, who will be one of the lead speakers at the Filmonomics Talks this coming Monday in New York, runs Gamechanger as President. "The reason that we started this had to do with the fact that the only thing that will change the gender disparity in the film business is women directed movies making money," said Cogan. "Money speaks much louder than prejudice."

Fortunately, market data is entirely on their side. As Cate Blanchett reminded the world from her Oscar podium this year, the success of movies like "Blue Jasmine" and "Gravity" demonstrates that female-centric stories are far from niche experiences "Audiences want to see them," said Blanchett.  "In fact, they earn money." Not only that but women have enormous purchasing power simply as ticket-buyers - a potency hammered home just this week when the female-driven lewd comedy "Neighbors" squished "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" at the box office.

"Gravity"
Warner Bros. "Gravity"

Measuring gender equity is by no means straightforward. Some critics have simply looked at the ratio of male characters to female characters. Others have tried counting how many screen minutes each gender enjoys among the lead performers and supporting roles. And then there’s the Bechdel test, the now-standard benchmark for quantifying storytelling depth and range. Films that pass the Bechdel test require that at least two women characters - with actual names - talk to each other about something other than a man. And there are some surprising economics pay-offs for those that do.

FiveThirtyEight, the data journalism website run by celebrity statistician Nate Silver, looked at 1,615 films released from 1990 to 2013 and concluded that the median budget of films that passed the Bechdel test was 35 percent lower than those that failed. The study found that those same films enjoyed a 37% higher return on investment in the US – and their ROI in international markets was comparable to male-centric films. So much for industry wisdom about which projects 'travel.'

"We found that the data doesn’t appear to support the persistent Hollywood belief that films featuring women do worse at the box office. Instead, we found evidence that films that feature meaningful interactions between women may in fact have a better return on investment, overall, than films that don’t," said the website's Walt Hickey.

Cate Blanchett in "Blue Jasmine"
"Blue Jasmine"

In light of such findings, is it any wonder that women are scored disproportionately higher by Slated than they are by the industry they operate in? The platform's scoring algorithms are intrinsically gender-blind and non-judgmental; people and projects on the site are assessed purely on the basis of past revenue performance and awards recognition. Industry prejudices about which faces do or do not work in the marketplace clearly have a direct bearing on how well those individuals are able to perform commercially. But what the Slated data won't do is compound those gender, age, creed, orientation and ethnic biases by over- or under-indexing anyone in attempt to mimic the industry's self-declared pecking order. Right now, 12 women feature among our top 20 trending producers over the last 30 days. In fact, they occupy 5 of the top 6 spots. That might seem inordinately high, given what we are told about the alpha-male power structures in the film business, but it is a real-time reflection of an actual marketplace, not the perceived one. If you are looking to uncover hidden values, this might be a great place to start.

Such modest numbers might not seem particularly meaningful until you consider the latest figures from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at the San Diego State University. Its survey found that women accounted for a mere 16% of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films. This represents a decrease of two percentage points since 2012 and a decrease of one percentage point from 1998. As a crude statistical comparison, that would translate to little more than 3 out of every 20.

Director Maya Forbes, Mark Ruffalo of "Infinitely Polar Bear"
Daniel Bergeron Director Maya Forbes, Mark Ruffalo of "Infinitely Polar Bear"

The figures are better in the independent film world, but even there a joint report by the Sundance Institute and Women in Film Los Angeles found women made up 29.8% of 11,197 directors, writers, producers, cinematographers and editors on films that were selected for the Sundance Film Festival in the decade between 2002 to 2012. At best, that equates to 6 out of 20. 

Leaving aside issues of human equality and social justice, there are financial benefits that come with a more objective, less discriminatory marketplace. Numerous studies have shown that a more diverse workforce is more productive, innovative and contributes to increased market share, profitability and lower employee turnover. Richard Swart, Director of Research at U.C. Berkeley's Program for Innovation in Entrepreneurial and Social Finance, says early academic research is also showing women are more successful than men at fundraising on pledge and donation based platforms. No one knows how this trend will translate to equity crowdfunding, but if Gamechanger Films serves as a bellwether then the omens are promising: that fund has helped open up an investor base that is 80% women.

This article is related to: Women's issues, Women Directors, Jane Campion, Jane Campion, Gender Equality, Gamechanger Films, The Babadook, Infinitely Polar Bear, Cate Blanchett, Mynette Louie, Maya Forbes





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