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Op-Ed
Op-Ed

Hollywood's female deficit isn't going away

Hollywood is stuck in the boys-in-baseball caps stage: demonstrably, provably unable to budge from its white male past. The 24 producers of the best film Oscar nominees this year include just seven women, which, at 29%, is the high point for women producers, directors, and writers. For perhaps the most important position in the movie industry — the director — not a single woman made the cut. Again.

It's not a matter of ability, it's not for lack of paying dues and trying, it's much simpler: It's gender discrimination, whether conscious or not.

And it's not just the academy. In 2016 as always, the academy had considerably fewer female-directed films than male-directed ones from which to choose. According to Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, a mere 9% of directors for the top 250 grossing American films last year were female, a percentage more or less unchanged now for decades.

It's not that women don't direct, or don't do it well. Four women have received best director nominations in the past, starting with Lina Wertmüller in 1976. The sole woman to take home the prize, Kathryn Bigelow, bested a director whose budget was 20 times that of Bigelow's “The Hurt Locker.”

And outside Oscar's ranks? Last year, women comprised more than a third of the directors at the Sundance Film Festival, the premiere showcase for up-and-coming directors. In 2014, as many female as male directors presented there. These are women who ought to be in line for bigger films, but somehow those opportunities don't come their way.

Stacy Smith, director of the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative at USC's Annenberg School, found that career paths narrow pretty rapidly for women directors. While male-directed and female-directed Sundance movies are picked up for distribution in roughly equal percentages, men are more likely than women to get distribution with the Disneys, Sonys, and Warner Bros. of the world. Women are left to independent companies with less money and clout. When it comes to broad distribution — more than 250 theaters — males outpace female-directors by a ratio of 6 to 1.

“A gendered marketplace” affects male and female filmmakers differently, Smith concludes. “As market forces increase, the opportunities for female directors decrease.”

The difference cannot be explained by the quality of the films, Smith found: Female-helmed films receive slightly higher critical reception than the works of male directors. The factors at work to limit women's opportunities instead include the usual suspects: presumptions among agents and studio executives that women-directed films are less commercial; concerns that women can't handle big budgets or large crews; and the (very mistaken) idea that women simply don't want to make action films. When asked about their ambitions, Smith found nearly half of female directors were interested in directing action films, a desire repeatedly articulated by women directors in press interviews.

For the few women who get opportunities to direct the kind of big films that become Oscar contenders, the next hurdle is the academy itself. Nominees for the director Oscar are decided by vote of the director's branch of the academy, which is overwhelmingly male. Because the surest way to be added to the director's branch is to be nominated for an Oscar, that won't change soon.

The system perpetuates itself. Steven Spielberg has been quoted as saying Colin Trevorrow, whom he plucked out of Sundance to direct “Jurassic World,” reminded him of his younger self. “We all have pictures and ideas in our heads about what film directors look like and how they should act … based on who we have seen filling these roles in the past,” Lauzen says. “By employing these stereotypes, the past becomes the future” unless a concerted effort is made to change.

Why does it matter who directs the films we see?

Lauzen calls the director's chair a “gateway position.” “Individuals in these roles,” she says, “may open the door to greater opportunities for others that resemble their own demographic profile, consciously or subconsciously.” Films directed by women employ twice as many female editors, and five times as many female cinematographers. When a woman directs, more than half the writers on average are female, compared with just 10% on films directed by men.

But the effect of female directors doesn't end there; it fans out into the portrayal of women in the media, providing role models for girls and young women. Films with at least one woman writer or director feature more female characters, and those characters tend to speak more and interrupt others more often, “powerful language behaviors,” Lauzen says.

The pressure to solve Hollywood's diversity problems is increasing. In November, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission began an investigation on gender discrimination among directors. Other efforts to open opportunities for women include Sundance Institute and Women in Film's “Financing Intensive” to educate female filmmakers in how to fund their films; ArcLight Cinemas' Women in Entertainment Summit, and the nonprofit Gamechanger Films which was formed by four producers to make capital available for women-directed films.

These efforts are small compared with the impact the power agents and big studios could have, though. They need to pull off those baseball caps and look around. Hollywood needs to stop pretending talented women directors aren't there, and hire them to make great films.

Meg Waite Clayton's latest novel is “The Race for Paris.”

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 18, 2016, in the Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Oscar's female deficit" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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