HOW WOMEN MADE HISTORICAL ADVANCES IN THE 2021 OSCAR RACE by Susan Granger

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History was made when the Oscar nominations were released for the Best Director category. Only five women have ever been nominated before. This year, Chloe Zhao was chosen for her elegiac road-trip drama “Nomadland,” along with first-time feature-filmmaker Emerald Fennel for her #MeToo revenge comedy “Promising Young Woman.”

Chloe Zhao, the first woman of color nominated for Best Director, is the most nominated woman in a single year in Oscar history, since she’s also competing as Best Picture producer, along with Adapted Screenplay and Editing. That’s a record-breaking four nominations in a single year.

And this past weekend, she won the coveted Directors’ Guild Award.

A Chinese immigrant who spent her childhood in Beijing, Zhao attended high school in Los Angeles, living alone in a Koreatown studio apartment behind a Sizzler restaurant. “I had such a romanticized version of America,” she says. At NYU’s film school, she studied with Spike Lee and spent a year on the Oglala Lakota reservation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, before making “The Rider” (2017).

“I’d seen some older nomads around, but I didn’t know how big a movement it was or what it’s like for a person in their twilight years to hit the road. I was very drawn to that idea,” Zhao explains.

Before this year, London-born actress Emerald Fennell was best known as Camilla Parker Bowles on “The Crown.” She took over from Phoebe Waller-Bridge as showrunner for the second season of “Killing Eve” before making her feature filmmaking debut as writer, director and producer of “Promising Young Woman.”

“This is such an exciting year for diversity – such an extraordinary breadth of voices and stories,” notes Fennell. “To be part of a group of people who feel like they’re really doing something new is thrilling.”

“Emerald Fennell’s razor-sharp debut is like a beautifully-wrapped piece of candy,” muses Carey Mulligan, “except when you put it in your mouth, you realize it’s full of poison.”

Only five women have ever been Oscar-nominated by the insular, male-dominated Director’s Branch: Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird”, Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”), Lina Wertmuller (“Seven Beauties”), Jane Campion (“The Piano”) and Sofia Coppola (“Lost in Translation”). And only one – Kathryn Bigelow – has ever won.

Long characterized as an aging boys’ club, the Directors Branch has been working to diversify its ranks, many drawn from the international film community. There are 564 members of which 24.1% are women.

It was disappointing that no Black women directors were nominated this year, particularly after Regina King’s first feature, “One Night in Miami,” was so critically lauded and Gina Prince-Blythewood’s action-packed “The Old Guard” won the Critics Choice Super Award. No Black woman has ever been nominated in the Director category at the Oscars.

On the other hand, Black artisans Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson made Oscar history with “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” nominations in the Best Makeup & Hairstyling category. Neal was in charge of hair-styling/wigs, while Wilson was Viola Davis’ personal stylist.

As of January, 2021, the Academy’s membership was 84% white and 68% male. A record total of 70 women were honored this year. Their 76 nominations out of the 235 individual nominees across all 23 competitive categories constitute 32.3%.

What does that mean for Hollywood? Could it mark a turning point where we begin to see more women landing behind-the-camera jobs and garnering award recognition on a regular basis?

The Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film at San Diego State University concludes that a record 16% of women were behind the 100 top-grossing films of 2020, up from 12% in 2019 and a mere 4% in 2018. Quite simply, 80% of the top films still don’t have women at the helm.

While most Hollywood studios have shown some progress in hiring women directors, Lionsgate stands alone, having given a wide theatrical release to only one film (“The Spy Who Dumped Me”) directed by a woman since 2016.

With the acquisition of 20th Century Fox/Fox Searchlight, Disney has vastly increased the number of films it releases. Searchlight had Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland,” while Disney+ carried Niki Caro’s “Mulan” and Thea Sharrock’s “The One and Only Ivan.” Marvel Studios’ “Black Widow,” directed by Cate Shortland, and “Eternals,” directed by Chloe Zhao will be released later this year. For 2022, “Captain Marvel 2,” directed by Nia DaCosta, and in 2023, “Star Wars: Rogue Squadron” helmed by Patty Jenkins.

Sony comes the closest to gender parity with six of its 21 films coming from female directors, while its indie wing Sony Pictures Classics has three on its upcoming slate: Heidi Ewing’s “I Carry You With Me,” Eva Husson’s “Mothering Sunday,” and Melanie Laurent’s “The Nightigale.”

Universal’s two 2020 films directed by women were Floria Sigismondi’s “The Turning” and Stella Meghie’s “The Photograph.” In 2021, there’s Nia DaCosta’s revival of “Candyman” and DreamWorks Aimation’s “Spirit Untamed,” helmed by Elaine Bogan.

Universal’s indie wing, Focus Features, released Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman” and, more recently, Robin Wright’s “Land.” Coming up in 2022, there’s Lulu Wang’s follow-up to “The Farewell,” along with Nathalia Biancheri’s Polish drama “Wolf” and Massy Tadjedin’s “Circle of Treason.”

Many in Hollywood firmly believe that this is the decade of women championing and supporting other women. There’s a safe space being created for younger women whose voices are being heard.

Looking ahead, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences decreed that – starting with the 2024 Oscars – in order for any film to be eligible for Best Picture consideration, it would need to reflect the industry’s inclusion standards both on-screen and behind the camera.

It’s a culmination of a social-media movement that ignited when #OscarsSoWhite tainted the 2015 Awards ceremony. For the 94th and 95th ceremonies – 2022 and 2023 – filmmakers will have to submit a confidential Academy Inclusion Standards form to be considered. For the 96th Awards in 2024, Best Picture hopefuls will be required to meet at least two out of four new standards.

Standard A states that at least one “lead or significant supporting actor” must be either “Asian, Hispanic, Latinx, Black/African American, Indigenous/Native American/Alaskan, Middle Eastern/North African, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander” or “Other underrepresented race or ethnicity.”

The rest of the cast must be at least 30% “Women, Racial or ethnic group, LBGTQ+ or People with cognitive or physical disabilities, or who are deaf or hard of hearing.”

The main storyline, narrative or theme of the film must also be centered on one of the above groups.

At least two members of these same groups must be represented in the film’s leadership crew, including “Casting Director, Cinematographer, Composer. Costume Designer, Director, Editor, Hairstylist, Makeup Artist, Producer, Production Designer, Set Decorator, Sound, VFX Supervisor, Writer.” Additionally, at least 30% of the total crew must be from an under-represented or ethnic minority.

This seems to be a place to start. Obviously, the goal is not to prevent films from being made. It’s about broadening the scope of films being made. People in the industry now know that their choices are being evaluated, which – in the long run – is healthier for our culture and healthier for our employmet to have more diverse behind-the-scenes community.

As Martha Stewart would say, “It’s a good thing.”

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