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Heroines of Cinema: These 10 Female Filmmakers Prove Why Hollywood Studios Should Change Their Tune

Photo of Matthew Hammett Knott By Matthew Hammett Knott | Indiewire May 29, 2014 at 2:2PM

One thing that shocks me more than anything about the sexism of the film industry is the inability of the Hollywood studios to hire female directors. The statistics speak for themselves — last year, the only woman to solely direct a film released on more than 2000 screens was Kimberley Peirce with "Carrie." It is quite simply extremely rare that a woman is permitted to direct a major movie, and it's amazing that the fuss about such a miserable reality isn't greater.
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Jennifer Yuh Nelson

One thing that shocks me more than anything about the sexism of the film industry is the inability of the Hollywood studios to hire female directors. The statistics speak for themselves — last year, the only woman to solely direct a film released on more than 2000 screens was Kimberley Peirce with "Carrie." It is quite simply extremely rare that a woman is permitted to direct a major movie, and it's amazing that the fuss about such a miserable reality isn't greater.

READ MORE: 10 More Great Women-Directed Films Streaming on Netflix: 'The Virgin Suicides,' 'Concussion,' 'Bastards' and More

The reasons for this have been much discussed, but a recurrent idea is that there is a deeply ingrained reluctance to allow women to handle significant budgets. It seems ludicrous to even have to make the case why this is ridiculous, but in the face of the status quo, it also appears necessary.

So here are ten women who were allowed to direct studio films in what might have been considered "risky" hiring decisions for various reasons (ignoring of course the fact that some studio executives seem to believe that simply being female makes a director a risk). Some had never directed before, while others were making big leaps up in budget terms or coming off the back of a flop. But in every case, they delivered the studio a solid return on their investment, and in most cases, went on to bigger and better things.

It shouldn't be remarkable or even noteworthy -- the women below are not marvels of ingenuity, but simply directors doing their job. And frankly, it would be equally valid to write a list of women directors who studios took bets on that didn't pay off... but who deserve a second chance all the same. Even so, I think the cumulative effect of this kind of stat gathering and number crunching has its own value. Given the state of the industry, the list below should be required bedtime reading for every studio bigot in Hollywood. And then let's hope we never have to make the case again.

1. After working as a story artist on the original "Kung Fu Panda," Jennifer Yuh Nelson was promoted to director for its $150 million-budgeted sequel. Released in 2009, it became the highest-grossing film ever directed by a woman at the time, and the sixth biggest film of that year worldwide. Yuh Nelson is currently at work on the third entry in the series.

2. In 2005, Angela Robinson was best known for directing "D.E.B.S.," a lesbian-themed action comedy which received mixed reviews and performed poorly at the box office. Yet somebody at Disney clearly appreciated Robinson's brand of humor and thrills (a formula she has had plenty of success with on the small screen) as she was hired to direct "Herbie: Fully Loaded," starring then hot-property Lindsay Lohan. On a $50 million budget, she delivered a solid $144 worldwide gross.

3. Anne Fletcher was a choreographer when she was handed the reins to "Step Up," a modestly budgeted $12 million film not expected to do well outside its niche. She turned it into a sleeper hit, grossing $119 million, and has since become a reliable studio hit generator -- her 2009 film "The Proposal" is in fact the highest ever-grossing original live action film both directed by and starring a woman.

Mamma Mia!

4. Phyllida Lloyd is another woman who went from never directing a film to helming a mega box office hit. "Mamma Mia" is the highest-grossing film of all time in the UK and took over $600 million worldwide, while her follow-up "The Iron Lady" was also an unexpectedly big hit, grossing well over $100 million.

5. By the 1990s, Nancy Meyers was a big enough deal as a screenwriter that she was being offered directing work, though still had never made a film when she took on Disney's remake of "The Parent Trap." She led the $15 million movie to a $92 million gross and never looked back, with her subsequent four films going on to gross an astonishing $1.14 billion from a combined $300 million budget. Even her least successful film, "The Holiday," more than doubled its production budget at the box office, while other films have taken four, five or six times what they cost to make. There is no greater proof of her financial reliability than the fact she was granted $85 million to make "It's Complicated" -- a studio film about the love (and sex) life of a woman in her sixties. Naturally, it was a worldwide hit.

6. The Kathryn Bigelow hired to direct "Point Break" was not the Oscar-winning director we now know. Yet to have a box office hit, her previous film "Blue Steel" had in fact flopped fairly badly. Despite this, the studio had faith, allowing the $24 million movie to become an $83 million hit with a cult following, and a crucial step forward towards the clout Bigelow enjoys today.

7. As co-director of "Frozen," Jennifer Lee is the first ever feature animation director to rise up through screenwriting rather than the technical ranks. But perhaps it is a formula that bears repeating, since Lee's directorial debut is a well storied success -- along with co-director Chris Buck she has led "Frozen" to become the 5th highest grossing film in history, and the first directed by a woman to earn more than $1 billion.

8. Mimi Leder had not even released her debut feature "The Peacemaker" when Steven Spielberg tapped her to direct "Deep Impact," possibly the only time a woman has been handed the reins of a classic summer tentpole. The film has suffered from comparisons to "Armageddon," released the same summer with a similar plot but almost double the budget and a much starrier cast. Despite this, there is no denying "Deep Impact"'s success, taking $350 million worldwide from its $80 million budget. Sadly, Leder's subsequent feature "Pay it Forward" was not a success and her feature directing career took a hit as a result.

Kimberly French/Warner Bros. Catherine Hardwicke on the set of 'Red Riding Hood'

9. Catherine Hardwicke had a strong track record when she was hired to direct "Twilight," but her previous film "The Nativity Story" had been deemed a flop, which for some women directors can be terminal. But after getting the job she turned the film into a massive $400 million success (the highest gross ever for a woman director at the time), paving the way for the success (and high budgets) of young adult franchises like "The Hunger Games." Hardwicke's at-the-time risky decision to cast Kristen Stewart and especially Robert Pattinson was arguably the heart of the franchise's success. Despite this, she was infamously bumped from directing the sequels.

10. Back in 1978, Amy Heckerling directed a short film which attracted a lot of attention, including from Universal president Tom Mount. But despite his interest in Heckerling, he told her she needed to find an agent before he could hire her. When she struggled over many months, he followed his hunch and asked her to make a film for him anyway. The result was Heckerling's debut "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," shot on a $4.5 million budget and leading to a $27 million gross and cult status, not to mention Heckerling's subsequent career directing films like "Look Who's Talking" and "Clueless."

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


This article is related to: Amy Heckerling, Catherine Hardwicke, Women Writers, women directors, Female Characters, Filmmaker Toolkit, Heroines of Cinema