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Column: For your consideration: Women in Film has an all-female awards ballot

Florence Pugh, from left, Saoirse Ronan and Emma Watson in “Little Women.”
Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women,” costarring, from left, Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan and Emma Watson, is featured heavily on Women in Film’s all female awards ballot.
(Wilson Webb / Columbia Pictures)

“Don’t say ‘nominate more women.’ Name the women who should have been nominated.”

When the inevitable awards season protest arises from the equally inevitable scarcity, or utter lack, of women among film award nominees in directing, cinematography and even writing categories, that’s what many people say, often adding with oblivious irony, that gender should not be part of any awards consideration.

Which does make one wonder what the response would be should any category outside acting be dominated by female nominees.

This year, the group Women in Film has made responding to the first, and imagining the second, a lot easier. Working with Women and Hollywood and New York Women in Film and Television, the group, made up of women working in film, television and other media, has put together a handy all-female ballot for this year’s Oscar voters, a cheat sheet of all the potential female nominees this year.

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Which, significantly enough, WIF made available on its website and through social media on Dec. 9, the same day that the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. announced its Golden Globe nominations, which included all-male lists in the directing and writing categories.

“We didn’t expect the Golden Globe nominations to be quite that bad,” says Kirsten Schaffer, WIF executive director. “We thought there would be a few more women, but the HFPA is odd.”

Several names on the group’s ballot were called out as snubs after the Golden Globes nominations — directors Greta Gerwig for “Little Women,” Alma Har’el for “Honey Boy,” Marielle Heller for “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” Lulu Wang for “The Farewell,” Céline Sciamma for “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” Lorene Scarfaria for “Hustlers”; (Scarfaria, Gerwig, and Wang were also among those women passed over in the writing category).

But the ballot also includes women behind popular and critically acclaimed films who have been thus far left out of the awards conversation altogether. The director (Melina Matsoukas) and writer (Lena Waithe) of “Queen and Slim;” the writer/director of “The Souvenir” (Joanna Hogg); the cinematographers of “The Farewell” (Anna Franquesa Solano), “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (Claire Mathon) and “Honey Boy” (Natasha Braier); the co-writer of “1917" (Krysty Wilson-Cairns).

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Lena Waithe
Lena Waithe wrote the screenplay for “Queen and Slim.”
(Chris Pizzello / Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

It’s an impressive list, heartening in its narrative and tonal diversity, and while it is obviously not reasonable to think that most, or even many of the names on it will, or should, make the Oscar cut, neither is it reasonable to think that none of them will or should. The “quality not gender” argument is reductive; awards exist, at least in part, to acknowledge the emergence of new perspectives and striking shifts in the art of cinema.

“Many of the films made by women this year are high-quality,” says Schaffer, who came to WIF after growing Outfest, first as head of programming and then as executive director. “Quality is subjective — taste is based on knowledge and experience but also on cultural perspective.”

Which is, of course, exactly why the film academy instituted a parity initiative that has added nearly 2,400 new members.

Although there has been no gender equivalent of the explosive, and effective, #Oscarssowhite campaign for better representation in the acting nominations, similar concerns about male dominance in so many of the categories have been voiced in a variety of ways. Last year, WIF ran an awards season campaign reminding voters to, as Abigail Adams asked her husband to while he was involved in the Continental Congress’ fight to start a new nation, “Remember the Ladies.” It was slightly more successful than Adams’ original exhortation — female filmmakers made a strong showing in the documentary and composing categories in the Oscars last year and were visible in adapted and original screenplay, but the directing and cinematography categories were all male.

“This year, we thought, ‘Let’s go bigger,’ ” Schaffer said. “ ’Let’s make a cheat sheet like people have for elections.’ ”

Quality should always be the deciding factor in any awards, but, she says, it comes down to visibility. “How are people supposed to judge the quality of movies that they have never seen or don’t even know exist?”

Most movies made by women don’t get the same support as those with male directors, she says. “It does come down to visibility; female filmmakers often don’t get the same attention that [Martin] Scorsese or [Quentin] Tarantino get. We need to take a hard look at the marketing, we need more transparency about the marketing budgets.”

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Certainly if “quality” were all that mattered, no film would need awards marketing. But even excellence needs to attract eyeballs, hence all those billboards, advertisements, event-screenings and marketing teams devoted to awards season.

Just like in elections, campaign spending matters. A lot. And studios still tend to spend big on those films and people they think are most likely to win. And “likely to win” is often quite different from the admittedly subjective term “best.”

But female directors especially suffer from a reputation issue. Few female filmmakers have the name-recognition or status of Pedro Almodóvar, Sam Mendes, Noah Baumbach (to name just those in this year’s race) because no woman has been allowed a directing career as long and/or varied as any of them. And, say it with me now, only one woman has ever won an Oscar for directing.

The female ballot and “Vote for Women” campaign is Women in Film’s way of trying to level the field, to show that there are names, lots of names, behind the general “where are the women” outrage and to remind people that women made a lot of films that are worth watching. As every indie filmmaker knows, awards season can bring attention to work that was not granted a blockbuster advertising budget, attracting audiences that may have missed great films that did not make noise at the box office the first time around.

“We want industry parity and equality,” says Schaffer, “and one way that happens is through awards.”

And while many of the pre-Oscar nominations paint an awards portrait very lacking in parity, there are signs that the bigger picture is improving.

“The percentage of films directed by women in 2019 is much higher than the year before,” Schaffer said. “I think the studies will show it grew from 4% to 14%. And in 2020, out of the top 10 grossing films, we may see as many as five with female directors. And a lot of that is due to this kind of work.”

Meanwhile, WIF will continue to share its female ballot on its website and through social media until the Oscar telecast in early February, in hopes of drawing attention to the work of so many female filmmakers.

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“People are thrilled,” Schaffer says. “I’m an academy member myself, and although the academy is working hard to get us to see everything, it’s very hard to see everything. And if you don’t see the movies, how can you decide what or who is best?”


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