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The Oscars again snubbed female directors. But women producers had a record year

Female producers of Oscar best picture nominees include Emma Tillinger Koskoff, left, producer of "The Irishman" and "Joker," and Shannon McIntosh, producer of "Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood."
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Since the start of Hollywood’s awards season, the question has plagued the industry: Where’s the recognition for female filmmakers?

For the second year in a row, no women were nominated for best director at the Oscars. Female directors were also shut out of the BAFTA nods, helping prompt a widespread backlash and soul searching within the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.

Producer Shannon McIntosh, who is nominated for best picture for her work on “Once Upon a Time... In Hollywood,” agrees that film industry has a severe problem when it comes to providing opportunities for women behind the camera. Still, she couldn’t help getting annoyed by one aspect of the conversation about female representation.

“What’s wonderful is there are a lot of us female producers, so around the Golden Globes, I got a little upset when people were saying no women were nominated,” said McIntosh, at Cafe Gratitude on North Larchmont Boulevard. “I said, ‘I’m sorry, but I’m a woman.’”

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McIntosh has a point. At this year’s Oscars, which take place Sunday at the Dolby Theatre, eight of the nine best-picture-nominated films have at least one credited female producer. That’s the most since the the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences began nominating up to 10 best picture contenders about a decade ago. Since the early 1950s, the top honor has been presented to the film’s producers, whereas previously the award went to the production company.

Producer Dame Pippa Harris.
(James Gourley / BAFTA)

Martin Scorsese’s crime epic “The Irishman” was produced by two women, Jane Rosenthal and Emma Tillinger Koskoff, who is also nominated for Warner Bros.’ “Joker.” Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures’ World War I epic “1917" also counts two female producers: Pippa Harris and Jayne-Ann Tenggren.

Chernin Entertainment executive Jenno Topping produced “Ford v. Ferrari” with Peter Chernin and James Mangold, while Chelsea Winstanley produced the Nazi comedy “Jojo Rabbit” with her husband, Taika Waititi, and Kwak Sin Ae produced Bong Joon Ho’s South Korean thriller “Parasite.” Meanwhile, former Sony Pictures film chief Amy Pascal is the sole nominated producer of Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women.”

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Producers, especially female producers, are easy to overlook, partly because most industry outsiders have only a vague understanding of what they do. They figure out how to bring a filmmaker’s vision to the big screen, performing a wide array of crucial but unflashy functions, such as overseeing script development, managing budgets, devising production schedules, assembling crew and serving as a communique between the director and the studio.

Producer Jenno Topping.
(Steve Granitz / WireImage)

The tasks and challenges vary. For McIntosh, who has worked with Tarantino since her days as a Miramax executive, one of the most daunting tasks was orchestrating a plan to bring 1969 Los Angeles to life for “Once Upon a Time” with minimal digital tinkering, a serious challenge in a city with constant construction of high-rises and other structures.

For Tillinger Koskoff, who has worked with Scorsese since serving as his assistant on the 2004 Oscar-winning “The Aviator,” it meant overseeing 108 days of shooting “The Irishman” in and around New York with an immense crew and as many as 12 cameras. Because the film used extensive de-aging effects that would only be added in post-production, Tillinger Koskoff also had to help the cast and crew keep track of the movie’s tricky timeline. “Remember, we did so much de-aging within the film, but you didn’t see any of that within context for 14 months after we wrapped shooting,” she said.

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“Joker,” which also filmed in New York, was her first non-Scorsese producing project, which initially gave her some apprehension. But her fear was short-lived. On “Joker,” which was inspired by classic Scorsese films such as “Taxi Driver,” her mission became to shoulder some of the logistical burden from director Todd Phillips so he could focus on directing Joaquin Phoenix through a physically and emotionally demanding performance.

“I had to say to [Phillips] multiple times, ‘I’m here for a reason. You’ve got to take your producer hat off,’” Tillinger Koskoff said. “‘Let me worry about the budget, let’s location scout as though we have all the money in the world.’”

Despite their pivotal role in these Oscar-nominated films, Hollywood still gives short shrift to the contributions of female filmmakers.

Women have historically had a greater presence in producing jobs than in the director’s chair. Of the Producers Guild of America’s more than 7,000 members 43% are women, many of whom get into producing after years of working as filmmaker assistants and studio executives. Tillinger Koskoff, for example, worked for power players such as talent manager Rick Yorn, actress Uma Thurman and director Ted Demme before joining Scorsese.

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Producer Jane Rosenthal

In contrast, the Directors Guild of America’s membership, which includes professionals such as assistant directors and stage managers, is 24% female.

The lack of women directing high-profile films is even more striking, despite recent gains. A January study by USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that 10.6% of the directors of last year’s 100 highest-grossing movies were women. And that was a big jump from 4.5% in 2018.

Harris, who co-founded Neal Street Productions with “1917" director Sam Mendes in 2003, said that the pace of change has been incredibly slow, something she has noticed through her years working in the British media industry. Risk-averse studios have seen women directors as risky bets, despite the success of multiple female-led movies. That fear increases as budgets escalate.

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“Certainly, when I was starting out in the business, I worked with only one female director, but I worked with dozens of female producers, female heads of drama and heads of channels at the various broadcasters,” said London-based Harris, who previously served in major roles at the BBC and other companies.“So I think it’s always been the case that there have been role models for people like me, whereas there weren’t those role models for female directors. That doesn’t explain today why there still aren’t female directors being recognized.”

The Oscars’ lack of women directors was particularly striking given the number of acclaimed female-helmed pictures in 2019, including Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell,” Lorene Scafaria’s “Hustlers” and Olivia Wilde’s “Booksmart.” Even Gerwig, whose “Little Women” is up for best picture and five other awards, couldn’t get a directing nod.

That’s despite efforts by the academy to shake up its voter pool. In its latest effort to diversify its ranks, the academy in July added 842 new members (it now has 9,500 members). With its latest class, which is 50% female, the representation of women in the organization grew to 32%. Ten branches of the academy invited more women than men this year, including, for the first time, producers, directors and screenwriters.

“The fact that there’s such a paucity of directors represented is on all of us, and everyone has to do better,” said Topping, the “Ford v. Ferrari” producer.

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The nominated female producers are making efforts to change that by tapping women in directing roles. For example, the New Zealand producer Winstanley (“Jojo Rabbit”) recently founded her production company This Too Shall Pass, which is focused on female and minority voices.

Currently, she’s producing a Persian film by director Sophia Kiapos called “Arezou,” about a young girl in post-revolution Iran who finds her voice through an underground ballet group. She also produced the 2018 documentary “Merata,” about the late Maori cinema pioneer Merata Mita, whom she considered a mentor.

Producer Chelsea Winstanley
(Todd Williamson / January Images)

“To be honest, we’ve lived in a very white-male-skewed view of cinema for a very long time,” Winstanley said. “We are naturally good producers. You’re carrying something from beginning to end and you have to be a very good multitasker. ... Maybe we’re too good at it, because we often get overlooked for these directing roles.”

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Harris’ BBC series “Call the Midwife,” which she executive produces, has primarily used female directors, some of whom, including Philippa Lowthorpe, have gone on to make feature films. Harris is also chair of BAFTA, which is undergoing a “root and branch” review of its nomination process, including the makeup of its membership, campaign guidelines and the availability of screenings.

While it’s unfair to place the burden of changing the industry on the women themselves, Rosenthal, who produced “The Irishman” with her longtime collaborator Robert De Niro, said she also feels a need to support the careers of women filmmakers.

Tribeca Enterprises, the New York company she co-founded with De Niro, is 70% staffed by women. The firm’s Tribeca Film Festival, she said, represents a prime platform for new voices in movies, including women and people of color.

“I feel it’s my responsibility, as a woman who’s been in this business for a long time, to mentor other women, to help them grow and make the best films we can,” Rosenthal said. “That’s what we have to do. The academy has led in how they’ve made the membership more inclusive, but we have to take the responsibility of mentoring other women and bringing them to the table to tell their stories.”


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