Over the holiday break, I read many of the Oscar predictions that litter not just the trades but the various general interest “papers of record” this time of year. But I hardly saw a single list that predicted a woman director to win in the Best Documentary Feature category. That got me thinking about the misperception that the documentary world is more inclusive, less sexist and less racist than other parts of the film and television business.
There has been a lot of long-overdue talk recently about the underrepresentation of women and people of color as directors in the entertainment industry as a whole (e.g., the multiple articles in the New York Times this past fall, culminating in the November 20th Sunday Magazine cover story by Maureen Dowd; the federal government’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigation; the coverage in Variety, Fortune and Forbes, among many other major publications about the fact that in 2014 only 7% of the top 250 movies were directed by women, etc.). Much of the public conversation surrounding this issue has paid particular attention to the underrepresentation of women in the major categories at the Oscars. But there has been no similar outcry about this also being a pervasive problem in the documentary category, despite the fact that in the past 20 years only one female director (Laura Poitras) and one female co-director (Zana Briski) have won in the Best Documentary Feature category.
In fact, the documentary community tends to view itself and to self-identify to others as not being afflicted with the “isms” that plague the rest of our industry. Part of the misconception might be due to the fact that documentaries themselves often tell the stories of the underrepresented and involve issues of social justice, which may make it feel like it is a more inclusive category but does not actually make it so. Especially because as far as the award winners are concerned, the Oscar rarely goes to these kinds of films. Instead, they go to the documentaries that are about global politics or economic issues or broadly accepted to be significant historical events (which are documentary subjects I love by the way, but there are also tons of great films about personal or “small” stories that are just as important and often deal with those very same subjects, albeit in a less explicit and more metaphorical way).
Perhaps we have bought into this utopian version of equality in documentaries because there are reportedly just as many women directing documentary films as men. However, when you compare documentaries to Hollywood features, it is important to note that the typical documentary is made at a fraction of the budget of a Hollywood narrative film, so this surface appearance of parity is more likely a result of the fact that the point of entry is less policed as a general matter. This is especially true in a world where the funding for these films often comes from a cobbled together from a combination of grants, public funds and donations from friends and family, as opposed to institutional financiers or commercial investors. However, as the budgets climb and the awards races start, fewer and fewer women are left in the mix.
Maybe we believe that the documentary world is more inclusive because the documentary branch of the Academy itself is reportedly 40% female. Notwithstanding the legion of women in the branch, the dismal statistic that less than 10% of the winners in the last 20 years have been women demonstrates that even a branch with many women voters still fails to hand the statue to other women, let alone to people of color. The very fact that it is a more diverse voting group by gender may more likely reflect the fact that in the days before documentaries were seen as commercially viable and were viewed by the Academy as an “eat your spinach” or more academic category, women were not shut out from the higher echelons. But as documentaries have become big business, the doors immediately started closing, even by other women.
In a business where winning an Oscar can mean being paid higher fees on the next film, having more creative control and being given the ability to cross over into directing fiction or commercials (or electing not to because with an Oscar, the career of documentary filmmaking itself becomes more sustainable), winnowing down the category to 90% white men is outrageous. I know in my bones that in the last 20 years, many of the best documentaries have been directed by women, but the lack of recognition for their work prevents women directors from having bigger and more profitable careers.
Given that the new year is a time to try to make positive changes and that the first step in doing so is to take an honest view of what our problems are in the first place, it seems like a good time for the documentary community to recognize that it suffers from the same problems as the entertainment business as a whole. I hope that in 2016 we see a change across our entire business that is more inclusive of all different kinds of filmmakers (including different types of filmmaking itself that continue to get shut out, like “The Act of Killing” last year or “The Wolfpack” this year). And I especially hope that this change is driven by the documentary community, whose spirit has always been a deep desire to tell the stories of those that have historically had no voice.
Victoria S. Cook is a partner at Frankfurt Kurnit and a member of the Entertainment Group. She focuses on motion-picture and television work, representing award-winning filmmakers, writers, directors, actors, television producers, film financiers and television networks.