The conversation about the lack of female directors in Hollywood has been rumbling on for what seems like forever, but that conversation has now found itself at a crucial point. At long last, people are beginning to get specific. After decades of vague allusions to a seemingly intangible, invisible issue, the conversation is finally becoming louder, and less easy to dismiss as the supposedly irrational ramblings of radical feminism. This is thanks to the visible activism of those concerned about the situation – on social media and within the film industry itself. It is also thanks to organizations such as the Female Filmmakers Initiative – launched by the Sundance Institute and Women In Film Los Angeles – which commissioned a vital study into the barriers and opportunities facing independent filmmakers, who try to engage in filmmaking while female. This research was a three year study, conducted by The Media, Diversity & Social Change (MDSC) Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism (@MDSCInitiative), and the findings of the third and final phase of it were recently delivered in a powerful and disturbing report.
As it stands, the current situation is entirely nonsensical. We know that, statistically, just as many women go to film school as men do, for example. We know that, statistically, just as many women complete their independent films and get them into the festival circuit. So, where are they? In mainstream Hollywood, why do the names of only two or three female directors spring to the minds of most audience members? More importantly – given that it is now 2015 – why is it still assumed that men will direct the high-profile, big-budget projects, to the extent that the hiring of a woman for such a thing is headline news?
There are several points to highlight here. First of all, there are those two or three female directors that more easily spring to mind – probably Kathryn Bigelow (the only female in history to win an Oscar for Best Director), Ava DuVernay (because she was in the news this year), and maybe Michelle MacLaren (because she was in the news even more recently). You might even think of Angelina Jolie or Patty Jenkins for the same news-based reasons. These are examples of names that are wheeled out as evidence that progress is being made. Of course, one woman winning an actual Oscar for Best Director is better than none, but that can hardly be characterized as ‘progress’ when the recent Female Filmmakers Initiative report found that “The prevalence of females decreases notably when moving from independent to mainstream film,” and that that gap has doubled in size since 2002. No – that’s the opposite of progress.
Secondly, it is very much headline news when a woman is actually hired to direct a high-profile, big-budget project – as demonstrated by the recent staff shuffling on the upcoming Wonder Woman film. Michelle MacLaren left the project due to ‘creative differences,’ and was swiftly replaced by Patty Jenkins. Cue vast celebrations about how Wonder Woman will save us all from a fate worse than gender discrimination. Unfortunately, that cannot be the case when the same studio (Warner Bros, with DC) actively uses the film to perpetuate the limiting of female talent to its newly commissioned female-led projects. The same thing is happening over at Disney, with Marvel, as they purposefully seek a female director for Captain Marvel, while failing to hire (or possibly even consider) female directors for male-led projects. Patty Jenkins was hired for Thor: The Dark World, you say? Yes, but that didn’t work out, did it?