Back to IndieWire

Investigation into Hollywood’s Bias Against Women Directors Forges Ahead (And Women Directors Respond)

Investigation into Hollywood's Bias Against Women Directors Forges Ahead (And Women Directors Respond)

Directors such as Ava DuVernay and Angelina Jolie are the exception rather than the rule in Hollywood. Over the past 17 years, the number of women directing the top 250 highest-grossing films declined by 2 percent according to a recent study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. 

In May The American Civil Liberties Union (A.C.L.U.) said it would ask state and federal agencies to investigate Hollywood’s hiring practices and possibly bring charges against the major studios, networks and talent agencies for intentional gender discrimination in recruiting and hiring female directors, The New York Times reports. The A.C.L.U. wrote a letter to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), as well.

Now, according to The Los Angeles Times, the EEOC has begun to contact female directors to investigate the claim of gender discrimination in Hollywood. In a letter sent out late last week, the EEOC asked to schedule interviews with women directors “so that we may learn more about the gender-related issues which you are facing in both the film and television industries.”

Lori Precious, a director of commercials and music videos who received a letter from the EEOC told the L.A. Times, that the investigation “feels historic. We were all hoping it would go this far. I’m so tired of hearing, ‘There aren’t qualified women.’ There are qualified women to do every directing job in Hollywood.”

READ MORE: Sorry, Ladies: Study on Women in Film and Television Confirms the Worst

Though a quarter of the films shown at Sundance between 2002 and 2014 were directed by women, significantly fewer women are offered plum big-budget Hollywood directing gigs after helming an indie — especially in contrast with the fact male directors, after directing just one indie film, are often offered Hollywood jobs (per research conducted by Dr. Stacy Smith at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism).

The New York Times points to Gareth Edwards as an example. After making the independent film “Monsters,” in 2010 on a $500,000 production budget (the film grossed $237,301 per Box Office Mojo), Edwards was chosen by Warner Bros. to direct the $160 million 2014 reboot of “Godzilla.”

Female directors are often dismissed as being difficult to work with. Hollywood studios often counter criticism of hiring practices by saying there aren’t enough female directors to hire. Frustrated, female directors have taken to venting online, including the blog Shit People Say to Women Directors.

“This is about a lack of opportunities, plain and simple,” writes Women and Hollywood’s Melissa Silverstein. “Women are not put on directing lists. When industry executives think about directors, they think about dudes. This is about the boys club. This is about an industry not figuring or caring to figure out how women can have kids and directing gigs. It’s about men on sets who don’t want to take orders from a woman. It’s about willful disinterest in stories about women and in women’s visions.”

Indiewire reached out to a select group of female directors for their response to the news of an inquiry. Here are some of their responses (we’ll update the story as more come in):

Hannah Fidell (“A Teacher”)

It’s much needed and I’m so happy that both the ACLU and The New York Times are publicizing this. It’s my understanding that the Director’s Guild implemented a quota for “minority” hires on TV shows…and you know what happened? The number of women hired for TV went down last year…shows ended up hiring men…be it Hispanic, black, Asian…which is all fine and good but it doesn’t solve OUR problem…

I fully believe that the only way to solve this problem is for a sort of affirmative action program for women working at the studio level both in TV and feature film. 

Leah Meyerhoff (“I Believe in Unicorns”)

Gender discrimination in Hollywood is an institutionalized problem and thus will take an institutionalized solution. Audiences are hungry for female-driven stories and there is no shortage of women directors eager to tell them. My graduating class in film school was one of the first where half the students were women, in no small part due to Title IX laws. The independent film world has made great progress in supporting films directed by women, and yet in Hollywood the statistics for female directors remain abysmally low. We have been talking about this for years without much tangible change. Hopefully, legal action by the ACLU will be that tipping point we so sorely need.

Susanna Fogel (“Life Partners”)

It’s exciting to feel such institutional muscle being thrown behind a problem we’ve grumbled about for years, while we’ve subtly tried to move the needle from inside a very flawed, biased system. It feels like the alliance we’ve been waiting for. Hopefully, such a public investigation will force more transparency and open dialogue in an industry that is still very much a lawless state where the capital is personal relationships and old-boy dealmaking at boutique hotel bars. And hopefully this will encourage female directors to present ourselves as confident leaders who are ready for these higher budgets, rather than becoming intimidated and embittered by the statistics and allowing that to affect our ambitions and presentation of ourselves as deserving of the keys to the kingdom we say we want!

Nikole Beckwith (“Stockholm, Pennsylvania”)

On the one hand it’s disappointing that the Hollywood machine has to be crowbarred open for this type of change to initiate, but on the other hand, I think: finally.

Hollywood’s exports are such a huge part of our cultural and international identities, I look forward to what shape that identity might take once it’s actually representative of its population. That representation is not just good for women, it’s good everyone.

It’s crazy to me that such openly biased hiring practices have thrived into this century, dismantling them can’t come soon enough and I’m sure the benefits of widening Hollywood’s narrow hiring pool will eclipse the disappointment I feel that they were incapable of doing it on their own. 

Negin Farsad (“3rd Street Blackout”)

My initial thought was YES! This has been going on for so long I’m thrilled that the ACLU is prompting a real investigation. It’s insane that Hollywood has the same hiring practices as Yemen. What I’ve noticed is that studios seem to offer men with little to no experience huge tent-pole films but a female director would have to make multiple low-budget films that win every festival and have rabid critical acclaim before they’re given half of that opportunity. It has always seemed to me that the men just graduate into better paying and bigger projects much faster. And if you’re a woman of color, well, I don’t think you graduate into anything. I take it back, the ladder in Yemen might be easier to climb.

Deborah Goodwin (“The Pastor”)

I could not be more encouraged by this bold move on the part A.C.L.U. This feels like a time for radical acceptance, of the fact that a HUGE segment of the world’s population’s voice is subdued through gender bias. Hollywood’s currency is an international language — and the voice of female storytellers is absent. This is not only discriminatory, but a genuine loss, culturally, esthetically, and morally.  

Paula Elias (director of the Citizen Jane Film Festival)

About flippin’ time. Film is one of the most powerful conveyors of culture that we have. It influences what we as a society believe about each other and if we do not value women’s voices, we are saying we do not value women. This issue is at the crux of the entire problem. Making space for stories told by women and other underrepresented people is crucial, not just for the underrepresented, but for us all. 

Cornelia Ravenal, co-founder of Wilderness Films

A few years ago, my male partner and I were working with a young male producer, when I realized that no matter how gracefully I phrased my emails, he’d respond curtly, patronizingly or sometimes not at all. Once I was copied on a thread I was not supposed to see, and saw a comment to another partner that he didn’t like my “tone.” So I decided to try an experiment. I continued to write emails as before, but instead of sending them myself, I asked my male partner to send them from his email account under his name. The response was fascinating: when it seemed as if the emails came from a man, the same male producer was cordial, constructive and responsive. At one pont, he commented on how much easier it was to be emailing with my male partner than with me – unaware that in fact, I was still the person with whom he was communicating.

Leslie McCleave (“Road”)

These are really encouraging signs of change. Over the past ten years I’ve seen many extremely talented female directors struggle to get a second feature made after a successful first feature. I feel like we are finally reaching a critical mass of attention to an issue that’s been hiding in plain sight. 

Victoria Negri (“Gold Star”)

I think this is a positive first step. Most of the filmmakers I know are women and their projects are beautiful, entertaining and first-rate. They are leaders on set, visionaries, artists as well as savvy business people, and thus deserve the bigger budget opportunities that male counterparts are first in line for. It’s a shame that these changes need to be legalized to give women these opportunities, but if this is what is needed to begin making changes, I’m 100% in support. We need to shift the perceptions in Hollywood and continue to make films for women and about women to continue to show that there is an audience. 

Sarah Goodman (“Porch Stories”)

A lot of the bias in the industry plays out against women and especially women of color in subtle, everyday ways. Sure, the numbers are blatant, but sometimes the behavior is not, unless you’re on the receiving end. Such as the experience at film parties where men often prioritize their conversations with each other, unless they know you or your work. There are countless unspoken assumptions at play when an unknown (to them) woman enters a social circle such as this, and I have repeatedly had the experience of surprise when the men in the group realize I’ve directed this and that and shift their behavior.

It’s an extension of having to prove myself as a female director when I’ve worked for hire on male crews. I’m a white woman and I notice how this dynamic is even stronger for sisters of color. A few years ago I made the conscious decision at parties to prioritize seeking out other women filmmakers at parties, to build alliances. It is so interesting to see when women make this choice, to lift each other up, how things can move. I believe institutionalized correctives like the A.C.L.U move will help shift both the obvious and atmospheric bias. 

You can read some of Indiewire’s recent coverage of gender inequity in Hollywood below and visit Women and Hollywood for more:

‘Shit People Say to Women Directors’ Highlights Sexism in Film and TV Industry

Sorry, Ladies: Study on Women in Film and Television Confirms the Worst

No More Excuses: Hollywood Needs to Hire More Female Directors

Female Directors at Sundance Have a Long Way to Go, New Study Finds

Female Filmmakers Call to Arms: Minnie Driver, Jennifer Morrison and More Call for 50% Women Directors

Note: This story was originally published on May 12, 2015 and has been updated to reflect the most recent news.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Toolkit and tagged , , , ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox