Here’s a riddle for you: A director is casting his new blockbuster film for a major studio. His son, who is an actor, is up for the lead role as the plucky youngster who saves the world. The director worries it will look like nepotism to cast him, and so he doesn’t. Later, the director is fired from the project. His replacement resumes looking through the casting footage, but when it comes to that same actor’s audition, the new director exclaims: “I can’t cast him, he’s my son!” Can this be possible?
Because you likely will have identified the above as a version of the old “no-one-believes-a-doctor-can-
But that’s where you’d be wrong.
According to a recent study from the Female Filmmakers Initiative (which is backed by the Sundance Institute and Women in Film and was conducted by Dr. Stacy L. Smith and her team from USC Annenberg, including Playlister Katie Walsh), there are myriad ways in which the likelihood of a woman meeting all the conditions of the riddle in question is near to zero. After all, she would have to be a female filmmaker entrusted with a big-budget studio blockbuster starring a male lead. And that doesn’t happen.
The study goes long and deep on how and why that is the case (which makes for an eye-opening read, so do take a look), and is valuable not least for providing hard research and inarguable statistical backup for the kind of debates that too often are accused of being anecdotal, biased or otherwise “unscientific.” In fact, the report is so dense and crammed with skewering insight that, should you print it out, pin it up to the wall and throw a dart at any of its 36 pages, you’ll likely land on something rich and vital and helpful in understanding the predicament.
For example, female directors who make it into the Sundance Film Festival‘s narrative competition (Sundance forms one of the study’s main data sets, which if anything could skew the numbers a little upward as it has a better track record as regards female director representation than many festivals) are just as likely to get distribution coming out of the festival as their male counterparts. So great job, everyone! Equality achieved, so we can all go home, right? Not so fast: the report goes on to prove conclusively that all distribution is not equal. Female-directed films are much more likely to get a deal from a smaller independent distributor with limited promotional resources and a low industry profile, and thus will be shown on fewer screens. And this is despite the fact that critically speaking (insofar as that can be quantified —they use Metacritic in the study), there is little difference between receptions of particular films based on the gender of the director. Which is well, duh to most of us, but it’s nonetheless surprising how prevalent the asinine “maybe men happen to make way better films” argument is, and it’s useful to have a research-backed rejoinder for the days when you’re feeling too polite for the obvious profanity.
This segment strikes me as peculiarly important, because it identifies with pinpoint accuracy the last moment at which any individual woman filmmaker, whatever obstacles she has had to overcome in making her film, is standing on level ground with her male counterpart. It also identifies a precise opportunity for measurable change.
However, it’s not simply about getting the bigger distributors, the mini-majors and specialist components of major studios to pick up female-directed films at the same rate they do male-directed films. A great deal of the report examines the reasons behind current behavior —with the inegalitarian opportunities offered to the female directors of these smaller films being the thin of the wedge, that way further up the line leads directly to the chasm-like disparity between men and women in terms of who gets to direct the big films. This is an aspect that’s getting actively worse, according to this delightful little nugget:
“Female directors of top-grossing films have decreased in the last 13 years, with female helmers clocking in at just 4.1 percent of directors across the 1,300 top movies in this time frame. This calculates into a gender ratio of 23.3 male directors to every 1 female”
So why is this? These are the parts of the report most likely to induce rage or a kind of vertiginous dizziness from their sheer circularity. Women directors are associated with certain genres (comedy, drama and/or romance), which are not regarded as the most commercially viable. Women are also regarded as more likely to direct female-led films, and since the first (largely untested but accepted as Gospel) law of blockbusterdom is that in order to make serious coin you cannot have a female lead, there’s no reason to let a double-x chromosome anywhere near a tentpole (God, so many reasons why “Wonder Woman” has to be good) .
Yet the study goes some way towards blowing all that guff and false logic apart to show that even after accounting for the systemic inequality of access to the kinds of films that are deemed relevant experience for a tentpole gig, the playing field is still not level. So while women seldom direct films in the blockbusteriest “action” or “comic book” genres, which are typically categorized “male” in terms of leading characters and perceived target audience, even when female directors have highly applicable genre experience, as with comedies, dramas or romances, they are still seldom given the high-profile opportunites to direct those genres, even when those comedies/drama/romances feature a leading female. And that’s not even getting into the exceptions to the “women don’t do action” rule (those women who’ve bucked all the above trends and obstacles to turn in action films yet are still not automatically considered for bigger gigs like their male counterparts), or pointing out that characterizing women as “unable” to do something which they’ve never, in general, had the opportunity to do is a closed loop.
But then, do the laydeez even want to risk breaking a nail directing big films? Do they even want that kind of pressure and financial responsibility? Amazingly, 25% of the study’s industry interviewees cited female directors’ “lack of ambition” as a contributing factor to their being passed over for the big jobs. However “when asked directly about their ambitions, nearly half of female directors articulated an interest in action or larger-budgeted films.” Which is probably not that far off the equivalent percentage for male filmmakers —the difference being that they might actually get the opportunities to fulfill those ambitions.
And so the study comes to the kicker: 12% of respondents simply doubt women’s competence, suggesting they “’can’t handle’ certain types of films or aspects of production, such as commanding a large crew.” If it weren’t such a gendered response, I’d suggest this statistic could make me cry. Because 12% might not seem like such a lot, but that’s one in ten, and the respondents are gatekeepers, opinion formers and dealmakers. And it’s one in ten who were honest enough to suggest they harbored these doubts —who knows how many more were (rightly) ashamed enough of this type of opinion to keep it to themselves? It certainly feels like a prevalent if minority view, and one that must surely contribute to this final, kick-in-the-stomach stat: of the female filmmakers interviewed who did express an ambition to direct big-budget films, more than 60% of them said actively pursuing that ambition was futile, as they would not be considered for those jobs.
So essentially the report suggests a continuum of ingrained attitude, second guessing, unexamined action, default thinking and unsubstantiated assumption on the part of everyone from industry power brokers to audiences (in their actual and perceived behavior) to filmmakers themselves (in the projects, genres and leading characters they choose, and in the tendency to self-censor in advance of probable rejection), that keeps female directors trapped in a closed circuit and marginalized from mainstream success. And part of the issue with the underrepresentation of women in directing is that it’s like a game of whack-a-mole —even if you address one of these many aspects, three more pop up and a Greek chorus of voices will immediately chime in to suggest that well yes it’s all very well you did X, but what about Y and Z and A through W?
So the answer is either to do nothing or to see every aspect of the problem as part of a continuum that needs to be rushed from all sides at once. To welcome non-discriminatingly any advance, no matter how slight, on any of these fronts, whether it’s Meryl Streep‘s screenwriting lab for women over 40, Rose Byrne launching an all-female production company, or Patty Jenkins‘ landing “Wonder Woman” after Michelle MacLaren‘s departure, or every dollar that female-fronted studio films like “Spy” and “Trainwreck” (review here) make at the 2015 box office, which goes double for the Elizabeth Banks-directed “Pitch Perfect 2“ and Anne Fletcher‘s upcoming action/comedy “Hot Pursuit.” Because that is what is so starkly illuminated in the Female Filmmakers Initiative report: the chase-your-tail issue of the under-representation of women in the director’s chair for blockbuster films is a self-perpetuating circle all the more vicious for seeming so impregnable, and the only way to breach a circle is to crush it from the outside in.