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by Matthew Hammett Knott
May 29, 2014 2:02 PM
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Heroines of Cinema: These 10 Female Filmmakers Prove Why Hollywood Studios Should Change Their Tune

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.

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

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.


  • Suzanne Mooney | June 10, 2014 12:27 PMReply

    Our new title Celluloid Ceiling celebrates the rise of international female film directors. With over 20 international contributors the book covers Hollywood to Saudi Arabia, Japan to Laos where we learn of women making films in male-dominated areas such as action, fantasy and horror.

  • Aria | June 3, 2014 11:48 AMReply

    Something about is article lacks enthusiasm. Why are you trying to show that "yes look women are directing and being given keys to the castle" when you can only find 10 examples and it's clear that aside from a tiny tiny tiny percentage there are no feme directors and no OPPORTUNITIES for them - Steven Spielberg had to hand a film to Mimi Leder? She had to be handed a film? And then she had one flop and her career was over and you don't point out how ridiculous this is seeing as men directors have flops all the time and are still directing? How about making a list of how awesome these directors are, highlighting their earlier work and where to watch it, instead of lamely trying to show that female directors exist. Why don't you dig around more and write about how many women are pushed aside for men when it comes to big directing jobs? Everyone knows there's a problem and this just feels like a lame attempt to show that female directors are a thing. Ya of course they are. All these women and many more are amazing. Why does this article jus lack energy and enthusiasm?

  • G | May 31, 2014 3:34 PMReply

    These articles feel like pandering: a marketing strategy more than anything.

    @P what other industries have genres? How is that illegal? These arguments make no sense.

    I'm no fan of the new spider man movies, but having a penis was not his only qualification for directing these films. 500 Days of Summer grossed $60M worldwide.

  • P | May 31, 2014 4:18 PM

    1. You wrote genre, not gender.

    2. I countered your example of Marc Webb with a legitimate reason for his selection. I am waiting for a counter argument there, including perhaps other female directors who would have been more qualified (as I said, the films are not great). If there were other, more qualified female directors vying for the job, and they weren't selected because of their gender (both difficult to prove), then you have a case.

    3. This specific discrimination, while very prevalent, is also very difficult to prove. Hollywood is not the school you teach at, nor is it a single institution. I understand your frustration at discrimination, which is very real, but your arguments continue to evade me. Should there be a tribunal for determining who is hired? More diversity programs? Quotas? What functional system exists to address these iniquities?

    That would be a more engaging discussion for indiewire readers than click bait about why hollywood needs to change. What are the specific obstacles facing female filmmakers? What can be done to ameliorate them?

    It goes a little farther than the Spider Man Franchise.

  • P | May 31, 2014 4:06 PM

    @G What do you mean when you say discrimmination is not illegal? I work as a teacher. If my co-worker gets a promotion over me (even if I am more qualified) simply because he is a man and I can prove it, I can sue the school for discrimmination. If I am black and I don't get the job on the basis of my race, that's illegal too...
    If a talented filmmaker is not getting hired simply because she is a woman, that's discrimmination. No other way to put it.

  • P | May 30, 2014 9:29 AMReply

    People, it's not sexism. It's discriminaion on the basis of genre and it happens to be illegal in any other industry. The studios see a talented guy in the indie scene and they hand him over Spiderman, they would never do that with a woman.

  • JR | May 29, 2014 10:56 PMReply

    No s***. Look, I agree, cinema has a history of misogyny, it's even a problem with many of its most revered artists. And I agree, there are plenty of great female filmmakers who have made some of our greatest films and more who should have made (or should be making) more films….but you've barely listed ANY of them by sticking with American Hollywood studio directors. Try the indie scene INDIEWire, or better yet look overseas. If I made a list of the best films of the past 20 years, I can probably fill 10 slots with movies made by women. The only one here that would be on there is Kathryn Bigelow.

  • how many more of these articles must we be subjected to? | May 29, 2014 6:13 PMReply

    Maybe half of these directors have made good films. I used to think that the "indie" spirit was to prioritize interesting films over the Hollywood, money-making, political machine. Now I realize that "Indie" just means pushing a different political agenda without regard to quality. Thanks, Indiewire.

  • Cass | May 30, 2014 11:24 AM

    Dude, it's not a political agenda is truth and it's a real shame as Hollywood becomes increasingly narrow. The best should be sllowed to flourish. Whatever gender. This is important stuff along with the fun bits.