Carrie Rickey’s surprising stats re ‘fem helmers’ vs. top grossers and Oscars

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As every journalist knows, you can spin stats to support any argument. I don’t want to spin, only to ask whether these stats herald good news or bad.

First, the stats:

  • 60% of Oscar nominated documentary features are directed by women,
  • 40% of Oscar nominated foreign-films are directed by women,
  • 25% of Sundance 2007 features and shorts are directed by women
  • 10% of best-picture Oscar nominees are directed by women (although “Little Miss Sunshine” is co-directed by Valerie Faris)
  • 6.25 % of top-250 domestic box office grossers in 2006 are directed by women
  • 1.8 % of top-1000 domestic box office grossers in 2006 are directed by women.

As every journalist knows, you can spin stats to support any argument. I don’t want to spin, only to ask the question do these stats mean good news or bad news? I’ll supply the evidence without spin. You’re the jury. I want your verdict. Analyze this:

1. Women directors dominate this year’s Oscar’s documentary category with Amy Berg’s “Deliver Us From Evil,” Heidi Ewing’s and Rachel Grady’s “Jesus Camp, “Laura Poitras’ and Jocelyn Glatzer’s “My Country, My Country.”

2. This year’s foreign-film nominations include Susanne Bier’s “After the Wedding” and Deepa Mehta’s “Water,” giving what Variety used to call “femme helmers” two out of five slots– the last time this occurred was in 1985, when Agnieszka Holland’s “Angry Harvest” and “Coline Serreau’s “Three Men and a Cradle” were nominated.

3. 2006 marks the fourth time in 79 years that the Academy nominated a female director. Previous nominees: Lina Wertmuller for “Seven Beauties” (1975), Jane Campion for “The Piano” (1993) and Sofia Coppola for “Lost in Translation.” None of them won, although both Campion and Coppola bagged statuettes for original screenplay.

4. Of this year’s 250 top grossers, 6.25% are directed by women, which is actually down a tick from 7% in 2005 (and this takes into consideration Faris’ half equity in “Little Miss Sunshine). This year’s list: “Step Up” (38), “Little Miss Sunshine” (48), “The Holiday” (59), “John Tucker Must Die” (75), “Take the Lead” (91), “The Nativity Story” (97), “Stick It!’ (105), “Marie Antoinette” (137), “Friends With Money” (147), “Something New” (163), Material Girls” (164), “Water” (192) and “Secret de Ma Mere” (225).

5. By genre, three women directed titles are rom-coms (”The Holiday,” “Friends With Money” and “Something New”), two are family coms (”Little Miss Sunshine” and “Secret de Ma Mere”), two are teen coms (”John Tucker Must Die” and “Material Girls”), two are dance musicals (”Step Up” and “Take the Lead”), two are historical dramas about women and religion (”The Nativity Story” and “Water”), one is an unconventional biopic (”Marie Antoinette”) and one a sports comedy (”Stick It!”).

6. Of the films on the Top 1000 Box Office list (not adjusted for inflation), 20 are directed by women. Noteworthy: most of them are comedies. Marshall directed four of the top 20, likewise Meyers. Heckerling has three titles and Ephron two. Brit Maguire and Aussie Armstrong are the only foreigners on the list.

7. There’s more correlation than usual between box office and Oscar nominations with these titles: Nine of the 20 women-helmed Top 1000 box office grossers received Oscars nominations. Shrek won best animated feature. It remains to be seen how “Little Miss Sunshine will fare. Of these 20, half are already classics: “Shrek,” “What Women Want,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” “Wayne’s World,” “Big,” “A League of Their Own,” “Bridget Jones,” “The Parent Trap,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” and “Little Women.”

I have a lot of thoughts about these stats, why the Sundance numbers are so much higher than mainstream box office slots and why there’s nothing by Claire Denis, Agnieszka Holland, Agnes Jaoui, Sally Potter, Julie Taymor or Margarethe von Trotta on them. But I want to hear the analysis and reactions of others before I jump in.

What’s your interpretation of the stats? See any trends? Please email your opinions to awfjinc@gmail.com.

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Carrie Rickey

Carrie Rickey has been The Philadelphia Inquirer's film critic for 21 years and writes the newspaper's Flickgrrl blog. She has reviewed films as diverse as "Water" and "The Waterboy," profiled celebrities from Lillian Gish to Will Smith, and reported on technological beakthroughs from the video revolution to the rise of movies on demand. Her reviews are syndicated nationwide and she is a regular contributor to Entertainment Weekly, MSNBC and NPR. Rickey's essays appear in numerous anthologies, including "The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll," "The American Century," and the Library of America's "American Movie Critics."