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Stumbling Blocks Persist for Female Film Directors

Sunday, August 11, 2013

While there are more women now working at all levels of the film industry, female directors are still not common, says Melissa Silverstein in this excerpt from "In Her Voice: Women Directors Talk Directing." Numerous obstacles remain.




Female movie director

Credit: Rawle C. Jackman/ThePatronSaint on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

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(WOMENSENEWS)-- All people have a click moment, an experience that deeply affects them and becomes embedded on their psyche. I've heard many women talk about the moment they discovered they were a feminist.

Not surprisingly, my click moment has to do with movies and feminism. When I was a teenager I discovered Barbra Streisand, first as a singer and then as an actress. I was 16 when "Yentl" came out, and I begged my parents--who had no interest in seeing this film--to take me. I remember they drove me on a very cold night to the Syosset Theatre on Long Island to see this film that I was so excited about. (Thanks Mom and Dad.) I was the youngest in the theater by several decades, but I didn't care. I was transfixed throughout the entire movie.In Her Voice: Women Directors Talk Directing

The movie ended and people started to get up, but I stayed glued to my seat. As the credits rolled, I saw something that I had never seen before. A woman's name everywhere. I probably had never thought about it, but seeing it had a profound effect on me. This woman was the producer, the director, the co-writer, the star and the singer. Whatever you might think about the film, you can't help but be impressed with the feat she accomplished. Getting this film made and directing it was not easy. After 15 years of struggle, she finally got a green light at $14.5 million that if it went over budget, Streisand would have to forgo part of her $3 million acting salary to cover the gap.

Looking back to 1983, Streisand's "Yentl" was among other strong women's roles in film that year. It was the year of "Silkwood" and "Terms of Endearment," not to mention "Flashdance," "Educating Rita" and "Heart Like a Wheel." Each of those movies is a classic. "Terms of Endearment" grossed more than $100 million, a sum almost unheard of in the 1980s. But the one thing to remember is that none of those movies, except "Yentl," was directed by a woman. It was a time of very, very few female directors.

'Horrific Statistics'

It would be wonderful to say that we have progressed to a place 30 years later where what Streisand accomplished has become the norm.

It is true that now there are women working at all levels of the industry. But let's be real, while it is tough for all directors, it is tougher for women. The horrific statistics confirm the anecdotal evidence. Only 5 percent of the top 250 grossing films released in the United States in 2011 were directed by women. And no matter the perception that women have achieved a certain level of success, the numbers are actually getting worse, not better. Women directed 9 percent of films in 1998, 7 percent in 2006 and 7 percent in 2010. (For these statistics and many more, check out the .)

Female directors clearly do better in independent film. The latest statistics (from 2011–12) show that women made up 18 percent of narrative film directors and 39 percent of documentary directors of films screened at a large set of film festivals across the United States. But studio films are still those that get seen by most people and are also the ones that get the largest distribution overseas.

The lack of female directors can be partially attributed to the continued rise of the blockbuster, which are most all about male superheroes or male action heroes. When 95 percent of the movies are directed by men, that means we see most movies from a male perspective.

I refuse to get into the argument that women's films are not successful. It's true that films directed by men have bigger budgets, which means they have bigger marketing budgets, which means they open on more screens, which means they gross more. Statistics show that it's the budget that affects the gross, not the gender of the director, producer or leading character.

I can count on one hand the women who have directed a film with a budget of more than $100 million--Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Brenda Chapman. They both directed animated films that have been hugely successful. "Kung Fu Panda 2," directed by Yuh Nelson, grossed more than half a billion just overseas and "Brave," co-directed by Chapman, is more than that number for its worldwide gross.

Few Box Office Hits

And while it has become a regular occurrence to see a male director hit $100 million, because women don't get the big budgeted films, there are relatively few female directors who have achieved that status. But there are some. Penny Marshall in was the first woman to direct a movie that grossed $100 million with "Big." Her film "A League of Their Own" also topped $100 million. Other women who have directed films that have grossed $100 million include, in addition to Yuh Nelson and Chapman: Mimi Leder ("Deep Impact"); Phyllida Lloyd ("Mamma Mia"); Amy Heckerling ("Look Who's Talking"); Catherine Hardwicke ("Twilight"); Anne Fletcher ("The Proposal"); Nora Ephron ("Sleepless in Seattle" and "You've Got Mail"); Penelope Spheeris ("Wayne's World"); Vicky Jenson ("Shrek" and "Shark Tale"); Betty Thomas ("Dr. Doolittle" and "Alvin and the Chipmunks, the Squeakquel"); and Nancy Meyers ("What Women Want" and "Something's Gotta Give").

Another piece of the problem for female directors is the lack of confidence in women's stories. There's a prevailing sense that male stories are universal--for everyone--and that women's stories are just for women. As I wrote in the New York Times in a debate on how to get more women into influential positions in Hollywood, I continue to wonder how "the stories of male action heroes became the dominant narratives of our time" when women buy half the movie tickets and are more than half the population. The reality that female directors and producers and writers deal with is the ongoing perception that women will go see movies about men and that men won't go see stories about women.

The success of "Bridesmaids" in helped diminish the case, because it seemed that for the first time Hollywood noticed men went to see a movie about women. In 2012, other films with female heroes have found success, most notably "The Hunger Games." But this perception persists as a problem for female directors, especially for those who want to tell women's stories.

Another stumbling block exists for female directors because there are so few women operating at the top tier, so their failures get amplified across the business. We know that there will be directors of both sexes who have films that flop. That's just the way the world works. I look forward to the day when women can make mediocre films and some flops and people just shrug their shoulders and move on.

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