(Author’s Note: This essay was originally written on May 9th, 2012.)
On the night of March 7th, 2010 in the famous Kodak Theatre, Barbara Streisand gets onto the stage and reads aloud the names for the Best Director category at the 82nd Academy Awards. As she speaks to the millions of people during the live broadcast, she reminds the audience that they may see either the first ever African-American or the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Director. Their chances seemed slim though, as the nominees were up against James Cameron, director of “Avatar” and Oscar-winning “Titanic”. His influence on technical innovation and CGI, along with his impressive blockbuster winning streak, the chances that Cameron many receive another Oscar win seemed very likely. However, after Streisand opened the envelope, she said, “The time has come”; and the time did truly come as Kathryn Bigelow, director of the critically acclaimed film “The Hurt Locker”, became the first woman to ever win the nomination for the Best Director (YouTube, 2010). While she received a standing ovation for her achievement, her Oscar win also brought up a recurring discussion.
Prior to her success, only three other women had been nominated for the same category in directing: Line Wertmuller for 1975’s “Seven Beauties”, Jane Campion for 1993’s “The Piano”, and Sofia Coppola for 2004’s “Lost in Translation” (Ruby, 2007). In the end, only four women out of the hundreds of nominees of years prior had ever been eligible for an Academy Award in Directing. Currently, there is now a higher sense of awareness of women’s status in the film industry; of their history, of their struggles, and of their developing progress.
The presence of women in the film production industry is not a recent phenomenon. One of the pioneers of early narrative filmmaking in was Alice Guy-Blache (1875-1968), who is often credited for being the first female director, and for arguably being one of the first filmmakers to pursue narrative storytelling in film. She started her career working for the Gaumont Film Company, one of the first production studios, and directed “The Cabbage Fairy” in 1896. Although her career spanned over twenty-five years and is credited for overseeing more than seven hundred films, she has become largely unknown to the contemporary masses. (Kermeliotis, 2010)
Following Alice Guy-Blache, other women, such as Lois Weber (1881-1939), contributed to the silent film era and to innovation. Weber, along with her husband Philips Smaliey, introduced the split screen shot in 1913’s “Suspense” with multiple characters, in entirely different locations, appear on the screen simultaneously. However, her long career ended after two divorces and her achievements were nearly forgotten as Weber died penniless. (Ostergard, and Worley)
As the film industry was gradually growing in the United States, cinema was making a profound uprising in Europe. Cinema in Germany became exceptional with the expressionistic styles and fantasy-like artwork. However, the German film industry took a radical turn when the Nazi Party came into power and suddenly German films based itself mostly on realism and political propaganda. Leni Riefenstahl grasped the different approaches to filmmaking and created the visual masterpiece, and highly controversial, “Triumph of the Will”. Riefenstahl introduced various techniques such as a full 180 degree arc, the use of aerial shots, and the use of a long focus lenses. With the enormous amount of extras, and the upward angles that gave the visual element of power to Hitler, Riefenstahl created one of the most influential films of that time era. Her innovations were revolutionary and continue to inspire present-day filmmakers such George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Peter Jackson. However, following the destruction of Germany in the aftermath of World War II, Leni Riefenstahl’s strong connections with high-ranking Nazi officials damaged her reputation and made it extremely difficult for her to make another picture. She retreated into still-photography, but never made another epic ever again.
In much of the early film industry, there were a fair amount of women directing pictures for various studios. Many of them made contributions to innovation and storytelling that have been very influential, such as the women who were previously mentioned. However, there was a sharp decline during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. One likely contribution to the declining numbers was the Hays Code, a series of morals that called to censor any profanity, illegal actions, offensive gestures, and most notability, the depiction of sexuality. Many themes and topics that are usually discussed in female-orientated films became restrictive, extremely limiting, and difficult to produce. Another factor that played a significant part on the gender inequalities was that as the Great Depression demanded that more films be produced to ensure the well-being of unemployed Americans, the motion picture industry became more of an ‘industry’. Cinema was being produced by a factory-style assembly, and the interest in business revenue became a higher concern. At the time, it was uncommon to see a woman participating in business matters and in a business setting in general. (Lauritsen, 2003)
Although there has been women working as filmmakers since the late nineteenth century, the numbers are so few and far between. One can easily make a long list of male directors, but usually it takes a moment to pause and reflect on the very few female directors. Currently, the statistical number of female directors is so low, it is too astounding. In an annual report titled “The Celluloid Ceiling”, conducted by Professor Martha Lauzen of the San Diego State University in California, analyzes the number of women working in Hollywood. From 1998 to 2008, nine percent of women were Hollywood directors. In 2010, that number dropped to seven percent, and continued to decline to five percent in 2011. In that same year, only eighteen percent of women were hired for behind-the-scenes roles such as producer, cinematographer, editor, etc. (Harris, 2012) Meanwhile, only thirty percent of the Director’s Guide of America is consisted of female members (Lauritsen, 2003). With such low numbers in the industry, it impacts the number of films created as well. In 2010, only three out of the one hundred top grossing movies were made by female directors (Barnes, 2011).
The reason as to why there are so few women working as filmmakers varies. Instead, there are many theories and possible factors, but it’s difficult to say what the direct cause is. “The problems are many, unfortunately, and it is very difficult to address them,” says Cathy Schulman, president of Women in Film (Barnes, 2011). It has been argued that Hollywood is based on a sort of ‘Boy’s Club’. Since the film industry became a business motivated industry in the early twentieth century, the networking usually seen in an office setting became prevalent. Men were recommending other men and in an environment where it is required for one to fight to get their projects produced, it was sometimes not advised for a woman to enter the arena. As Shulman once said, “I realize this is a little controversial to say, but some women directors need to work harder to cross over from show to business.” (Barnes, 2011)
Since the Hollywood studio system is a business, the role of finances has a huge impact on the director’s recognition. The most targeted demographic are young men, and thus many studio pictures attempt to draw that specific audience’s attention. “When the majority of people in power are male, who are they going to relate to most on-screen, and who do they think other people are going to relate to? Males. That’s no big conspiracy,” says Professor Martha Lauzen (Cochrane, 2010). It has often been generalized that female directors could only produce pictures that attracted other women such as Jane Campion’s “Bright Star”, Beebon Kidron’s “Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason”, along with countless more. Although such films may be aesthetically pleasing or contain brilliant storytelling, many of those groundbreaking films don’t usually make box office records. Therefore, larger studios are usually very hesitate in giving a woman a decent budget.
For example, when Kathryn Bigelow’s 2002 “K-19: The Widowmaker” considerably failed box office standards by giving receiving only $66 million. The film’s production costs, however, was $100 million. Afterwards, Bigelow was unable to direct another picture till 2007, which became “The Hurt Locker”. Meanwhile, director Michael Mann dealt with a flop with 2001’s “Ali”, but was able to return with a success three years later with 2004’s “Collateral”; and again in 2006 with “Miami Vice”. (Barnes, 2011) During the past decade alone, of the 241 films that were given a $100 million or more budget, seven were directed by women.
As Professor Martha Lauzen’s survey suggested, the percentage of female directors is decreasing. Some argue that one of the possible factors may be the possible lack of role models. Since it often seen in Hollywood, and at award shows, that male directors are largely dominate, it can be easily assumed that women don’t typically direct highly recognizable films. Meanwhile, in the independent film industry, works by women are highly notable. The problem is that the indie scene is usually attracted by a select and small audience. If young aspiring women are unable to see female directed pictures in their local theatre, then it can easily be assumed that Hollywood is not a place for women.
One of the most likely factors, yet also the least recognized is the possible cause for the lack of women in Hollywood: childbirth. According to filmmaker Beebon Kidron, she said, “obviously men also give up an enormous amount for their families, but there are many male directors who have partners who take primary care of the family, or who are to travel with them…I absolutely don’t to suggest that women are unreliable because we’re mothers – on the contrary. But the question of who brings up the kids has a material effect on all women’s careers”. Director Brad Bird agrees in an article by TheGuardian by stating that, “when you’re making a film, it takes up every day of your life, sixteen to eighteen hours a day, for a year. Trying to have children and being a film director is virtually impossible unless you’re rich”. (Cochrane, 2010)
However, the presence of children has not been completely damaging to some female directors. According to Ethiopian director Lucy Gebre-Egziabher, she recalls, “this picture of a Kenyan filmmaker…She was behind the camera. She had her baby tied behind her back and she was directing and that was the most powerful image.” (Hankin, 2007) Nancy Savoca also speaks how the family helped bring significance to her work, “I’m on set. The camera is next to me. I’m pregnant…Everyone is watching the setup of the next shot and my husband is right there. That was a beautiful moment.” (Hankin, 2007) Although raising a family is difficult, even as a filmmaker, overcoming challenges is just another part of being a director.
Perhaps the most overt and direct blame for the lack of female directors is usually pure sexism. Director and first female president of the Director’s Guide of America, Martha Coolidge, had been told that, “no woman over 40 could possibly have the stamina to direct a feature film. I’ve heard people say that the kinds of films they want are too big, too tough for a female director.” (Cochrane, 2010) Directors such as Antonia Bird and Beeban Kidron had either been stereotyped as someone with a lesser position on set, or had been called inappropriate names. More extreme scenarios, like the sexual assault Penelope Spheeris experienced from an executive do occur to women directors as well. “You say sexist, I say felony” adds Spheeris. (Cochrane, 2010)
Despite the challenges and overwhelming odds, efforts have been made to form groups with the ideal agenda that is similar to the ‘Boy’s Club’ concept, but is applied to women. For example, actress Trudie Styler and producer Celine Rattray recently formed a production company titled Maven Films that targets female talent to work on and support female-produced projects. According to Styler, “We’re not making some angry stand, but we are two female film-makers in what is a male industry…there’s a plethora of actresses out there who are looking for meatier roles and we’re reaping the benefits of that”. (Harris, 2012)
Non-profit organizations like Women in Film, also known as WIF, consider it to be a mission to ” recognize the importance of developing pathways and opportunities to encourage current and future generations of women to explore and pursue careers in all fields of the entertainment industry.” (Nachlis, 2006) Even POSH, co-founded by Reagan Zugelter and Jennifer Moon, organize retreats and workshops for female filmmakers to educate and encourage a strong presence of women working together (Nathans-Kelly, 2010). With more organizations supporting women, either financially or through community effort, the chances that change will happen in their current status appears to be more likely.
The recognition of women in the top box office charts remains to be a struggle, but in recent years, female directors have seen on top. Catherine Hardwicke’s 2008 film “Twilight” made less than 200 million dollars at the box office and Phyllida Lloyd’s 2008 musical “Mamma Mia” received over 140 million dollars. Kathryn Bigelow, after many false starts, released “The Hurt Locker” in 2009 and received over seventeen million dollars from selected theaters, and won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. (“Box Office Mojo”, 2012) Although these are only a few victories, the chances of more women making box records are rising.
After finally acknowledging the overwhelming presence of men in Hollywood, campaigns and movements have formed in order to make women appear more noticeable. For example, many film festivals are now spotlighting female-led projects and organizing events dedicated to the women working as filmmakers. At the Sundance Film Festival in 2011, highlights such as Vera Farmiga’s directorial with “Higher Ground” and Maryam Keshavarz’s bold Iranian film “Circumstance” was immensely powerful and received high regards from critics. Meanwhile, at the same event, panels were organized to discuss the desire to have more women working in film, including one coordinated by Women in Film. (Barnes, 2011)
As many groups and organizations are formed to promote women’s interest, most approaches to their goal have been mostly civil. Groups like the infamous Guerrilla Girls approach the issues of sexism and racism in artistic fashions, but also in very controversial ways. For example, during the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, a list of independent distributors was posted with a sign reading, “These Distributors Don’t Know How to Pick Up Women.” In 2003, a billboard in Hollywood read, “The U.S. Senate is More Progressive than Hollywood: Female Senators 14%, Female Film Directors 4%.” (Hankin, 2007) Although the Guerrilla Girls may seem aggressive in their efforts, they do draw attention to the issue and also promote the discussion.
Despite the challenges and a history of so few women, there remains some hope that the number of female directors will increase and create high-quality films. Indian director Mira Nair once said that women “think is a more expansive way…their cinema is a reflection of their world, keeping their own tangent, wanting the marketplace and managing.” (Chopra, 2011) So long as women continue to strive forward and aim to global recognition is it then possible that female directors will be known for their compelling works. The road to that goal remains a long one, but with each passing generation of filmmakers are there new chances and more possibilities. The film industry may remain a difficult field to enter, but so long as it is present, there can be new opportunities for women to emerge as influential filmmakers. Director Jane Campion once noted to young aspiring women that they need to “put on their coats of armor and get going.” (Cochrane, 2010)
Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar win is just one more step, but the inevitable progression is slowly emerging for young women. The efforts made to promote female directors will not stop. However, only time can tell when equality among male and female directors has truly come. A day may come where a crew is on set, the lights are up and the actors are in place, and the director is a woman, but no one second guesses for instantly refers to the stereotype. Instead, there may be a cultural acceptance that Hollywood is place for any gender and there are fewer restrictions. Films directed by women continue to appear on the big screen, and with each accomplishment, like Bigelow’s Oscar win, can there possibly be gender equality in the film industry. As director Karyn Kusama of “Jennifer’s Body” once said, “I really look forward to the day when I’m not called a female filmmaker. Just a filmmaker.” (Vary, 2009)
Citations and Sources
Barnes, Brooks. “For Women, Sundance Is Sunnier Than Hollywood.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 21 Jan 2011. Web. 24 Apr 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/22/movies/22sundance.html>.
Box Office Mojo. IMDB, 2012. Web. 9 May 2012. <http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/>.
Chopra, Anupama. “In Bollywood, Female Directors Find New Respect.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 02 Sept 2011. Web. 24 Apr 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/04/movies/zoya-akhtar-and-farah-khan-bollywood-directors>.
Cochrane, Kira. “Why Are There So Few Female Filmmakers?.” TheGuardian. TheObserver, 31 Jan 2010. Web. 24 Apr 2012. .
Hankin, Kelly. “And Introducing…The Female Director: Documentaries about Women Filmmakers as Feminist Activism.” NWSA Journal. 19.1 (2007): 59-88. Print.
Harris, Paul. “Hollywood Women Unite to Break Through the Celluloid Ceiling.” TheGuardian. TheObserver, 28 Jan 2012. Web. 24 Apr 2012. .
Kathryn Bigelow Winning the Oscar ® for Directing [Video]. (2010) Retrived May 4th, 2012 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e-DPBOTlSWk
Kermeliotis, Teo. “Alice Guy Blache: Unsung heroine of early cinema.” CNNEntertainment. Turner Broadcasting System Inc., 29 Mar 2010. Web. 24 Apr 2012. <http://articles.cnn.com/2010-03-29/entertainment/alice.guy.blache_1_kathryn-bigelow-herbert-blache-fiction-film?_s=PM:SHOWBIZ>.
Lauritsen, Whitney. “Female Filmmakers: The New Prejudice.” Female Filmmakers. ENGAGE Productions , Dec 2003. Web. 24 Apr 2012. <http://femalefilmmakers.tripod.com/id2.html>.
Nachlis, Gayle. “About WIF.” Women In Film. Women in Film, 2006. Web. 9 May 2012. <http://www.wif.org/about-wif>.
Nathans-Kelly, Stephen. “Female Filmmakers of the World, UNITE!.” EventDV. 23.4 (2010): 6-7. Print.
Ostergard, Carey, and Kim Worley. “Lois Weber.” Tecomm. Tecomm, n.d. Web. 9 May 2012. .
Ruby, Jennie. “Women In Media.” Off Our Backs. 37.1 (2007): 14-17. Print.
Vary, Adam. “Making Noise.” Entertainment Weekly. 24 Jul 2009: 13-14. Print.