‘Madding’ lack of women in business on screen – and women directors behind the camera

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Carey Mulligan in "Far From the Madding Crowd."

Carey Mulligan in “Far From the Madding Crowd.”

In select cities, film fans can find a bit of Victorian counter-programming this weekend with Thomas Vinterberg’s Far from the Madding Crowd opening opposite The Avengers: Age of Ultron.

I’ve not yet seen Madding Crowd – one of my least favorite things about living in Oklahoma City is how long it takes for us to get some of these platform releases – but I was intrigued by a quote AWFJ’s Jennifer Merin shared that Michael Sheen gave at the film’s press day:

“There are not many films about women who run businesses, not even in contemporary narratives. Unless they’re villains, that is. Bathsheba is unique,” Sheen said.

It’s a spot-on bit of insight. Typically, women in charge in an on-screen business are the baddies or the heavies of the story. Think Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl (1988) or Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada (2006) – and those characters are just in management positions. They don’t even own the business they’re working in, so it’s not like they’re truly in charge in that sense.

It’s more than a little scary and sad when a Thomas Hardy novel published in 1874 is the source material of this unusual cinematic narrative of a woman owning her own business.

Besides Bathsheba Everdeen’s (Carey Mulligan) farm, I was giving my brain a workout trying to think of movies in which women who own their businesses are the main character, and the ones that instantly came to mind are 1934’s Imitation of Life and 1945’s Mildred Pierce – films from the past. The only recent one I could recall about a woman owning her own business was 2008’s Sunshine Cleaning.

Although my remembrances should in no way be considered scientific, here are some statistics from womenable.com that are interesting to consider: Between 1997 and 2014, when the number of businesses in the United States increased by 47%, the number of women-owned firms increased by 68% – a rate 1-1/2 times the national average. Indeed, the growth in the number (up 68%), employment (up 11%) and revenues (up 72%) of women-owned firms over the past 17 years exceeds the growth rates of all but the largest, publicly-traded firms – topping growth rates among all other privately-held businesses over this period.

It would be nice if the world of film actually reflected this reality – and not just with a story literally from the Victorian age.

Study confirms women face strong bias in landing studio films

That’s in front of the camera. Let’s get behind the camera now: Three years ago, the Sundance Institute and Women in Film Los Angeles launched the Female Filmmakers Initiative to foster gender parity for women behind the camera. They commissioned a landmark study, authored by Professor Stacy Smith and her team at USC’s Annenberg School, to analyze the systemic obstacles and opportunities facing women in American independent film.

The newly released results of Phase III of the study, which explores how female directors fare after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, are sobering to say the least.

The study found that the ratio of male-to-female directed movies in competition at the Sundance fest from 2002 to 2014 was about 3 to 1. However, for the top 1,300 highest-grossing pictures released from 2002 to 2014, the ratio was a little more than 23 to 1.

Here are some of the findings:
Females directed one-quarter of the films in SFF U.S. Dramatic Competition between 2002 and 2014. Of the 208 U.S. Dramatic Competition films at SFF between 2002 and 2014, 25.5 percent had a female director and 74.5 percent had a male director. This translates into a gender ratio of 2.9 to 1.

Gender did not play a role in receiving theatrical distribution out of SFF Competition. Of the 208 SFF U.S. Dramatic Competition movies, 177 received domestic distribution (85.1 percent) and 31 did not. Female-directed films (88.7 percent) were just as likely to receive distribution out of SFF U.S. Dramatic Competition as male-directed films (83.9 percent).

There are differences in the types of companies that distribute male- and female-directed films. Movies with a female director (70.2%) were more likely than movies with a male director (56.9%) to be distributed by Independent companies with fewer financial resources and lower industry clout. Conversely, male-directed films (43.1%) were more likely than female-directed films (29.8%) to receive distribution from a Studio Specialty/Mini Major company. These latter companies have deeper pockets and greater reach.

Theatrical density was not related to director gender among SFF films with independent distribution. Male-directed and female-directed SFF U.S. Dramatic Competition films with Independent distribution were equally likely to be shown in 1-75 theatres as to be shown in 76-250+ theatres.

At the highest platform of theatrical distribution, above 250 screens, male directors outnumber female directors by a factor of 6 to 1. Among films distributed by Studio Specialty/Mini Major companies, a greater percentage of male-directed films (32.1 percent), were shown in 251+ theatres than female-directed films (21.4 percent).

Gender is related to the types of stories told by directors in SFF U.S. Dramatic Competition. Three-quarters of all SFF U.S. Dramatic Competition movies featured drama, comedy, and/or romance, with female-directed films (92.5 percent) more concentrated in these genres than male-directed films (69 percent). Lead character gender was also associated with director gender. Male-directed films were more likely to feature male leads whereas female-directed films were more likely to feature female leads

The director gender gap is at its widest in top-grossing films. Across 1,300 top-grossing films from 2002 to 2014, only 4.1 percent of all directors were female. This calculates into a gender ratio of 23.3 male directors to every 1 female director. (As sickening as this statistic is, I wonder if it takes into account how easy it seems to be for female directors on big-budget films to get fired. For instance, since Michelle MacLaren in April was fired from Wonder Woman over the usual nonspecific “creative differences” and replaced by Patty Jenkins – who was earlier fired from Thor 2 – so does that get counted as two female directors? Do women who start out on big-budget directing jobs but later get fired – which seems to be alarmingly common – still get counted?)

The prevalence of females decreases notably when moving from independent to mainstream film. In 2014, there was a 25 percent difference between the percentage of female directors at SFF (26.9 percent) and the percentage of female directors across the top 100 films (1.9 percent). This is almost double the gap observed (12.7 percent drop) in 2002.

The results from this study demonstrate that female directors set out on a course that confirms and triggers a stereotype that may affect the deals they make and the opportunities they are offered. As such, the choices female directors make early in their careers can have lasting financial consequences.

If that’s not enough depressing statistics for you, here are the  results of a survey of 39 men and 20 women in the film business that is part of the study, too:

Perception of a Gendered Marketplace (44 percent): Female directors are perceived to make films for a subset and/or less significant portion of the marketplace. In contrast, films by males are perceived to reach wide and lucrative segments of the market. One explanation for this difference is the tendency to “think director, think male,” or to describe the job of a director or profitable film content in masculine terms. Sellers were more likely to offer statements in this category compared to buyers.

Scarcity of Talent Pool and Experience (42 percent): Industry decision-makers perceive that there is a scarcity of female directors and a small pool to choose from in top-grossing films. Those interviewed named, on average, three female directors who might be included on consideration lists. In contrast, 45 different women helmed one of the 100 top- grossing movies across 13 years, and over 100 different women brought a narrative film to Sundance Film Festival from 2002 to 2014. Buyers and sellers mentioned this impediment equally.

Women’s Perceived Lack of Ambition (25 percent): Participants mentioned or questioned the degree of interest women have in 1) the directing position generally and 2) genre-based jobs, including action and tent-pole films. Sellers were more likely to report this impediment than buyers were. However, when asked directly about their ambitions, nearly half of female directors (43.9 percent) interviewed articulated an interest in larger-budget, action, or blockbuster films.

–  Industry Gender Imbalance (22 percent): Responses described the skewed representation of women in the film industry. This includes the predominance of men in gatekeeping positions. A few responses mentioned an industry socialization process and/or culture (e.g., boy’s club) that is male-dominated. Buyers reported this barrier slightly more often than sellers.

Little Support and Few Opportunities (14 percent): Individuals mentioned or questioned whether agents and managers are putting women up for jobs and the scarcity of chances or opportunities given to women. Buyers reported this barrier more than sellers.

Competence Doubted (12 percent): The final barrier mentioned by participants refers to questions about female directors’ competence. Participants mentioned or speculated about beliefs that women “can’t handle” certain types of films or aspects of production, such as commanding a large crew. Sellers mentioned this impediment more often than buyers. When asked if their authority had been doubted, 70 percent of female directors interviewed answered that they had been challenged by a work colleague.

The study’s conclusion:

Across three years of research, it is clear that the film industry must grapple with not only the paucity of female directors working at its highest ranks, but also the image industry leaders hold regarding female directors. To journey from gender inequality to parity, decision-makers and advocates must work to alter their perceptions about what women can and want to do in their careers. This requires moving away from narrow and limiting stereotypes to conceptions of women that are as open and unbounded as those surrounding men. By making the choice to act strategically, the industry can bridge the gap between business, advocacy, and creativity to foster an environment in which it is possible for female directors to flourish.

No kidding.

In an excellent feature for L.A. Weekly titled “How Hollywood Keeps Out Women,” Jessica P. Ogilvie not only cited the Sundance study but also talked to several women filmmakers including Diablo Cody, Lexi Alexander, Nicole Holofcener, Diana Ossana, Ava DuVernay and Jennifer Lee about the hurdles they’ve faced.

Quick hitters

– Encouraging news on the women directors front: Elizabeth Banks gets a very nice feature in the Hollywood Reporter for directing Pitch Perfect 2, expected to be one of the blockbuster comedies of the summer.

– Thursday marked the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, so it’s a great reason to see or see again Rory Kennedy’s Oscar-nominated documentary Last Days in Vietnam. You can rent or buy it via Amazon Instant Streaming here. (Note that Last Days in Vietnam lost the best doc Oscar to another woman-directed entry, Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour. In case you wanted a real-world example of the Sundance study)



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