Good women hard to find?


Nancy Meyers is the most sought-after woman director in Hollywood, thanks to her last film, “What Women Want,” which was a huge box-office hit. She’s now making a comedy at Columbia Pictures, co-starring Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton. But before she got the job, she had to be approved by Nicholson, who in his storied 40-plus-years career had never worked with a female director.

Even for Nicholson, women are hard to find, at least when it comes to directing a Hollywood movie. Last month, just down the street from Paramount Pictures, home of “What Women Want,” was a billboard picturing Trent Lott’s head superimposed on an Oscar statuette, with the chilling message: “Even the U.S. Senate is more progressive than Hollywood. Female Senators: 14%. Female Film Directors: 4%.” The brainchild of a feminist group known as the Guerrilla Girls, the billboard was aimed at highlighting the paltry number of women filmmakers.

If anything, the numbers are getting worse. In 1991 there were so many hot women directors in Hollywood that Time magazine ran a splashy spread celebrating “the rush of major movies directed by women,” focusing on a dozen in-demand filmmakers, including such then-top names as Martha Coolidge, Randa Haines, Jodie Foster, Barbra Streisand, Mary Lambert, Amy Heckerling, Penny Marshall and Joan Micklin Silver. Today, only two of the directors cited by Time -- Kathryn Bigelow and Nora Ephron -- are considered bankable A-list studio filmmakers.


In 21st century Hollywood, it’s a man’s, man’s, man’s world. Consider these numbers (which do not include films released by studio classics divisions):

* Since “Josie and the Pussycats,” co-directed by Deborah Kaplan, came out in April 2001, Universal Pictures has released one film by a female filmmaker, “The Guru,” directed by Daisy von Scherler Mayer.

* “Chasing Papi,” a low-budget movie directed by Linda Mendoza due out April 16, is the first female-directed film released by 20th Century Fox in four years.

* Since the end of 1998, Disney has made two films directed by women: “The Tigger Movie” by Jun Falkenstein and “Frank McClusky C.I.” by Arlene Sanford.

* In the seven years since DreamWorks was founded, women have co-directed several of its animated features, including “Shrek”; only two of its live-action releases were directed by women, none since 1999.

* New Line Cinema hasn’t released a film directed by a woman since Jessie Nelson’s “I Am Sam” in December 2001.


* Warner Bros. Films released 25 movies in 2002; one, Callie Khouri’s “The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood,” was directed by a woman.

* Since Penny Marshall’s “Riding in Cars With Boys” was released in October 2001, Columbia Pictures has released one female-directed film, “I Spy,” directed by Betty Thomas.

The dearth of female directors at major studios is especially mysterious at a time when more women than ever are running those studios. Five studios have top creative-decision-makers who are women, bearing the title of chair or head of production. But hiring records at studios run by women are virtually indistinguishable from studios run by men.

“It’s a very discouraging time for women directors,” says Directors Guild of America President Martha Coolidge, who, despite having been at the helm of such successful films as “Valley Girl” and “Rambling Rose,” hasn’t directed a studio feature since 1997. “Women directors just don’t go out on as many meetings or see as many scripts as men do.”

The people who run studios insist they don’t discriminate against women, saying they hire the best person for the job. But why is that person almost never a woman? The scarcity of women directors seems to have less to do with discrimination than with studios’ aversion to risk. With the average studio film budgeted at nearly $60 million, executives are loath to stray from lists of bankable filmmakers, where the only safe bets are directors who’ve had box-office hits or directed a reelful of hip Nike commercials or Jay-Z videos.

Women directors have also been victims of a radical transformation of the movie business in the last decade that has seen studios abandoning adult dramas for action thrillers, teen comedies and comic-book-driven franchise films. Since 1992, 14 films directed or co-directed by women have made more than $60 million. Only one, Mimi Leder’s “Deep Impact,” was an action-adventure film. “I’ve tried over and over to hire great young female directors like Sofia Coppola and Kimberly Peirce,” says Columbia Pictures Chairwoman Amy Pascal. “But I’m making ‘Men in Black 2’ and Adam Sandler movies, so I don’t have the material they want to do.”


In 2000, Pascal’s Columbia slate included four movies directed by women; all were box-office failures. Her job in jeopardy, taken to task by the Hollywood press for making chick-flick duds, Pascal opted to make crowd-pleasing action films like “Charlie’s Angels” and “Spider-Man.”

Women out of the loop

It’s not just a studio problem. Jerry Bruckheimer, the industry’s leading action producer, has made 30 films in his career. None have been directed by women. Neal Moritz, the industry’s top teen comedy and horror producer, has made 20 films. None have been directed by women.

By and large, producers like Bruckheimer and Moritz hire filmmakers who’ve made their names directing music videos and commercials. It’s an arena nearly bereft of women. As Moritz put it: “I can’t remember the last reel I saw from a woman director.” According to ICM agent David Unger, who represents several hot young video directors, “If you put together a list of the top 50 video and commercial directors, there’d probably be three women on the list.”

Since most of the biggest box-office material revolves around special-effects thrillers, executives seek out video boy wonders whose visual style is suited to action-oriented material. “If I wasn’t a screenwriter, I wouldn’t be directing,” says Audrey Wells, whose new film, “Under the Tuscan Sun,” will be released by Disney this fall. “Women can’t get jobs on attitude alone. I could never be some hip guy who made cool commercials and get a job directing ‘Charlie’s Angels.’ I had to prove I could direct by doing a Sundance movie, and put my own money into it to get it made.”

Women are abandoning directorial ambitions long before the plum assignments materialize. Barbara Corday, chairwoman of the production division at USC’s School of Cinema-Television, perhaps the industry’s leading pipeline for new talent, says women make up roughly half of the applicants for the school’s writing, animation and critical studies divisions but only 25% to 30% of the production division, which spawns most of the school’s future directors.

“A lot of young women look at movie credits and think, ‘I’m going to spend $100,000 on school and then where am I going to go?’ From our vantage point, there’s a red line around the studios and it’s hard for women to get past that.”


Most women directors get their start with independent or studio art-house features, a pathway that spawned such critically lauded filmmakers as Jane Campion, Gillian Armstrong, Mira Nair and Mary Harron. In recent years, a sprawling generation of talent has emerged, including Peirce (“Boys Don’t Cry”), Coppola (“The Virgin Suicides”), Lisa Cholodenko (“Laurel Canyon”), Nicole Holofcener (“Lovely & Amazing”), Rebecca Miller (“Personal Velocity”), Lynne Ramsey (“Movern Callar”) and Gurinder Chadha (“Bend It Like Beckham”).

The young directors have been assiduously courted by studio executives but with few concrete results. Pascal says she offered Peirce a shot at directing “Memoirs of a Geisha,” but Peirce eventually passed. Paramount Pictures studio Co-Chairwoman Sherry Lansing and Universal Chairwoman Stacey Snider say they’ve offered Peirce projects as well. But so far the only movie Peirce is attached to is “Dillinger,” a project produced by Steven Soderbergh, himself a maverick director spawned by the indie world.

“The doors are open,” says Peirce. “But it’s not a natural jump to the studio world. When you go to indie movies, you go to see funny, messed-up, weird autobiographical stories. Well, how does that translate into ‘Mission Impossible 3’ ”?

After Wells made her directorial debut with an edgy romance, “Guinevere,” the one studio project she was offered was “Josie and the Pussycats.” After “What a Girl Wants” director Dennie Gordon made her feature debut with the comedy “Joe Dirt,” she held out for more sophisticated material. “But I just got offered more big dumb comedies,” she says. First-time director Catherine Hardwicke got rave reviews at this year’s Sundance Film Festival for “Thirteen,” a disturbing portrait of teenage girls. Her first studio offer? A film starring the Olsen twins.

It’s impossible not to notice certain double standards. Most executives acknowledge that men get to fail more often than their female counterparts. And even when women make it onto the studio’s coveted A-list of potential directors, they still have to pass muster with the male stars who dominate the movie business, who often feel more comfortable working with a male authority figure.

Women filmmakers also point out that directing is particularly ill-suited to someone raising a family. “Being a movie director has historically been a male-oriented job -- directors were always the daddy figure,” says “Spider-Man” producer Laura Ziskin. “It says a lot about a woman’s lifestyle choice that your peak career-making years are also your peak childbearing years. I directed a short film years ago and after spending six straight days leaving the house before my daughter was even awake, I thought, ‘If I do a movie, I’m going to miss four months of my daughter’s life. This is not for me.’ ”


Often in Hollywood, where you’re only as good as your last hit, women who take time off to have children find that when they return to work they’ve lost crucial career momentum. “You can’t have a small child and be a feature director in Hollywood,” says Gordon, who was only willing to make “What a Girl Wants” in London because her son is now a teenager.

Peirce is envious of female studio executives. “If you have kids, running a studio is a great job. You make a lot of money, you can bring the kids to the office, you’re home on the weekends. Ask any director -- it’s hard finding a job that shoots around the corner from your house.”

The mentoring process doesn’t cross over from executives to filmmakers. “An executive will probably launch another executive’s career, while a director will launch another director’s career,” explains Disney head of production Nina Jacobson. “But when you look at who’s coming into my office, the percentages are skewed dramatically to white guys. You can’t get around the fact that directing movies is still a boy’s club.”


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