Rickey on stats: round two, and an AWFJ prize package!

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AWFJ members weigh in on Carrie Rickey’s fem helmer stats, and AWFJ announces it’s first-ever contest:

Last week, I ran numbers on ‘fem helmers,’ box office top grossers and women represented in this year’s Oscar nominations for AWFJ, and asked whether tallies were sadistic statistics or reasons to be cheerful. For me, they’re both.

Reasons to be cheerful:

Three out of five (or 60 per cent) of the Oscar-nominated documentaries are from what Variety whimsically calls “femme helmers.”

Two out of five (or 40 per cent) of the foreign-film nominees are made by women, and that ties the 1985 showing

Half of one of the best-picture nominees (“Little Miss Sunshine”) is directed by a woman

Reasons to be cheerless:

In 1987, 2.4 per cent of the top 250 box office films were directed by women. Almost two decades later, that number is a up a whopping 6.5 percent. Nowhere is the increase reflected in awards recognition.

Only three times in 80 years has the Academy nominated a female for best director.

According to 2005 figures compiled in the Celluloid Ceiling study by Dr. Martha Lauzen of San Diego State University, identifiable heroes outnumber identifiable heroines on screen by a ratio of 4 to 1

I asked colleagues why this is so. Their comments feel insightful and accurate:

Regarding documentary filmmaking, Joanna Langfield interprets women’s strong showing in that pursuit as attributable to the traditional female role of educator. “Women fimmakers in America, it seems, can/do/are allowed to make either comedies or docs. So, back to the good little girl syndrome: we’re either making people happy or teaching– and, that in a small venue that’s not expected to rock the world (or the box office, at least). Currently, there are fewer serious big budget films being made for theatrical release, but I don’t think we can assume that women don’t want to direct them. It might be interesting to compare the number of women who write serious, profound novels and how their work sells in their declining book market with the film stats re women helmers,” writes Langfield. “I don’t know if you’ve seen The Namesake yet, but it proves virtually all of the above mentioned perceptions wrong– so hopefully it’s a harbinger of things to come. It could be that now that we have a female candidate for President, greater opportunities for women might open up in other venues– like in directing. Or could it be that our having more women are in positions of authority (albeit not enough of them), paves the way so we CAN have a female candidate? Jennifer (Merin) and I went to a lunch recently at the Women’s Media Center, where someone commented that 27 countries have had a female head of state. That number seems to correspond with stats about international opportunities for women as directors.”

Anne Thompson writes on the Risky Blog that the best answer she’s come up with, “over years of asking why women filmmakers don’t do better in America (movie producers and writers, and TV directors, producers and writers all do better than directors) is that in some profound way, all the factors that serve to ruin many of our best male filmmakers also divebomb talented women. I’ve seen many women make their great indie early efforts–women with a voice–and then disappear. They are diverted out of movies, into television, or marginalized. But the other factor is that other cultures support women filmmakers, who are able to work in industries where movies aren’t so hideously risk averse and expensive. Women in Hollywood are given the assignments that men don’t want: romantic comedies, family movies. And their eagerness to please allows them to compromise. Julie Taymor is an example of a powerful artist who does not compromise, but finds easier voice in opera or theater or television than she does in movies. It’s so hard to make good movies here anyway, that even the best and brightest can’t get it done.”

Maitland McDonagh’s comments regarding opportunity for women directors abroad are right on the money, too. “This is a particularly American question, because the American and European film industries are different: Hollywood is ruled by the bottom line, and the bottom line is that the surest way to make a lot of money is to pander to the basest instincts of 12-year-old boys of all ages. In most European countries, government subsidies and tax incentives designed to support home-grown filmmakers help sustain a culture of filmmaking in which the box office isn’t the be-all and end-all and there’s room in the market for a wider variety of movies. In the 21st century, I think women directors stand a better overall chance of getting a foothold in Denmark or France or Germany or Sweden or Spain than they do in the mainstream US, where it’s dog eat dog and the devil take the last dollar,” writes McDonaugh.

“When I look at these numbers, I have to ask myself what exactly they mean. Are American women directors being consistently thwarted in their efforts to make the kind of blockbuster action pictures that put filmmakers on the A list? Or do female directors take a hard look at the movie business and self segregate the way so many female doctors do, opting for niches where they feel they can have lives as well as jobs and do more than further their own careers and make a ton of money,” McDonagh continues. “Look, for example, at the way women are concentrated in documentary filmmaking — how different is that from the way women gravitate towards pediatric medicine? That doesn’t mean that there aren’t women who want to direct horror movies or gross-out comedies, just that they’re outnumbered– the competition is ferocious and the old boy network isn’t on their side.”

Jennifer Merin concurs that cronyism factors in. “It’s hard for women directors to get themselves attached to big Hollywood movies. Hollywood’s male-dominated (although Amy Pascal– and congrats to her on recently being named by THR as Hollywood’s most important woman– and several others are certainly sprocketing the celluloid ceiling) and dealmaking (including who gets signed to direct) is buddy to buddy, or man to man,” writes Merin. “Hollywood’s ‘what have you done for me lately’ principal seems to be applied more harshly to women directors then to men, should their films have less than stellar days at the box office. Do women have higher hurdles to overcome to get second opportunities. Penny Marshall was riding high after “Big” and “A League of Their Own” scored as hits, but hasn’t directed a film since “Riding in Cars With Boys” tanked at the box office. Does that indicate lack of opportunity or has she opted out? It’s painful, too, to see accomplished women directors signing on to less-than-thrilling projects– did Martha Coolidge direct “Material Girls” to sustain her career through a dearth of choices, or because she loved the project?”

“It’s also significant,” Merin points out, “that women moviegoers don’t seem to realize they’re voting every time they buy a ticket. They’re at least 50 percent of the moviegoing public and have the sort of consumer power that can make or break a film. In some cities, groups of women film fans have formed specifically to see and support films during their opening weekends– hopefully, those include films by women or about women. But many women seem to be more discerning, more serious about the purchase of their soap powder than of their movie tickets.”

Susan Wloszczyna suggests that the greater women execs now in Hollywood may open doors for female directors. “I guess I should be disturbed about the lack of female directors doing major studio films. But I am more interested in the number of female studio execs and producers — they are the key to providing more opportunities for their gender– including directors,” writes Wloszczyna. “About stats on Sundance, indie films and docs, the reason more female directors are involved in these sorts of films is probably because they are cheaper to make, carry less risk and don’t require male Hollywood types with big pockets to pay their way. What would be interesting is to see how the women directors who first made a splash in these categories a couple years ago are faring now. As for female directors going for the girly genres, could be that is all they get offered, or could be it is what they like to do. Someone like Kathyrn Bigelow has done action but not with much success.”

I have my own theories about why the stats shake out as they do and so few women have been nominated in Oscar’s Best Director category:

First, many of America’s top female filmmakers are, as my colleagues point out, too, making comedies, which rarely get nominated for awards– unless they’re made by Woody Allen.

Second, the Academy is overwhelmingly male, and thus more responsive to movies made by men.

Third, because there are proportionally so few women directors period

Why are the percentages of women in Congress (there are 14 female senators and 85 congresswomen, in 2007) more than double the percentage of top-250 directors? Maybe it’s because U.S. voters are actually more evolved than the powers in Hollywood think they are.

I’m encouraged that Denmark and Canada nominated films by women directors in the best foreign film category (Susanne Bier’s “After the Wedding” and Deepa Mehta’s “Water’). But I can’t imagine the U.S. would nominate a film made by a woman to compete for film awards in Denmark or Canada, or elsewhere abroad.

As my colleagues have noted, Oscars data suggests women directors are taken more seriously outside the US than they are in America. Of the three female directors who’ve received Oscar nominations for best director, only one, Sofia Coppola, is US-born. The others, Lina Wertmuller and Jane Campion, are Italian and Australian respectively.

My AWFJ colleagues and I would like to see a more balanced representation of women on the screen and behind the cameras.

How do we propose to effect that?

After 20 years of writing on the subject, I can think of only one way, and it follows a campaign that I observed a decade ago, when only one of more than 130 Oscar nominees was a person of color. Responding to that alarming statistic, the media reported on “The Great Hollywood Blackout,” and that phrase became a rallying cry for fairness. From boardrooms to banks, the media’s focus educated and sensitized the people who made and financed films to the fact that they were neglecting a huge sector of the market.

Perhaps a rallying cry– a slogan– could do the same thing for women.

But what should it be?

In recognition that the statistics indicate that the film industry’s powers-that-be consistently undervalue the creative contributions made by women who’re working in front of and behind the cameras, and underestimate the discretionary purchasing power of women moviegoers who represent at least half of America’s cinema audience, AWFJ is conducting a contest to find a rallying cry (ie. slogan) that will best generate awareness about high degree of neglect of women in film, and of women in the audience and, hopefully, promote change.

The best slogan begets a prize package: an autographed photo of Jane Fonda, an autographed copy of Maitland McDonagh’s “Movie Lust,” DVDs of films by and/or about women, movie posters and other goodies that any movie lover would love to have. The contest is open to all. To be considered, slogans must be submitted by February 28. To enter, click 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."