Thirty years since ‘Real Genius,’ women directors still have a real underrepresentation problem

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This informal photo from a party in 1984 shows director Martha Coolidge "Valley Girl" star Deborah Forman. Forman also had a small role in Coolidge's 1985 feature "Real Genius," celebrating the 30th anniversary of its theatrical release this week. Photo provided

This informal photo from a party in 1984 shows director Martha Coolidge, left, and “Valley Girl” star Deborah Foreman. Foreman also had a small role in Coolidge’s 1985 feature “Real Genius,” celebrating the 30th anniversary of its theatrical release this week. Photo provided

On a lazy Saturday — one of those days where you just hang out at home in your pajamas and take a break from reality and responsibilities — I decided to introduce my younger two children to some of my favorite movies from my youth.

It was an all-out attack of the 1980s: We searched for treasure with Richard Donner’s The Goonies. We weren’t afraid of no ghosts with Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters, required viewing ahead of January’s reboot featuring an all-woman ghoul-fighting team.

And we got into rocket science with my personal ‘80s favorite, Martha Coolidge’s Real Genius. The story of two teenage science whizzes (Val Kilmer and Gabriel Jarret) who are tricked by their duplicitous professor (William Atherton) into building a laser for a top-secret military assassination program, the quotable comedy vividly illustrates how far we’ve come technologically – and how far we still have to go in terms of gender equality in the film industry.

Friday will mark 30 years since Real Genius was released in theaters, and Coolidge is still among the small number of female feature film directors working in Hollywood. Although she has shown a knack for helping discover and develop A-list talent — Kilmer in Real Genius, Nicolas Cage in Valley Girl and Laura Dern in Rambling Rose –– she has not achieved the name recognition and acclaim of many of her male counterparts. Dividing her time and talents between movies and television — she directed Halle Berry to both an Emmy and a Golden Globe in the telefilm Introducing Dorothy Dandridge — she was elected the first (and so far only) female president of the Directors Guild of America in 2002.

As Coolidge was readying Real Genius, the organization she would later lead was involved in efforts to create much-needed change on behalf of women, as UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women chronicled in a 2011 article titled “Liberating Hollywood: Thirty Years of Women Directors.”

Between 1949 and 1979, 7,332 feature films were made and released by major distributors. Just 14 of those films —a dismal 0.19 percent—were directed by women, Maya Montanez Smukler reports in the article. In 1979, the DGA Women’s Committee was formed — about seven years after the Writers Guild of America and Screen Actors Guild started their women’s committees.

The next year, as a consequence of DGA group’s work in publicly addressing industry sexism, 32 executives from prominent production companies, TV networks and film studios agreed to a meet with more than 100 members of the committee. But discussions between the two parties soon fell apart.

Having reached a standoff, the DGA in 1983 filed a class-action lawsuit — against Warner Bros. on July 25 and against Columbia Pictures on Dec. 21 — with the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California alleging discriminatory hiring practices towards women and racial minorities.

In 1985 — the same year Coolidge beamed Real Genius into theaters — Judge Pamela Rymer ruled in favor of Columbia and Warner Bros., and effectively against the DGA. Smukler reported that the judge stated the guild was partially responsible for the small number of women and minority film and television directors hired because of the way the organization’s contract perpetuated the “old boys’ club” and “word of mouth” hiring practices by stipulating that directors could choose their assistant directors and unit production managers.

Although the case was a failure, Smukler noted that it was significant not only because it drew then-unprecedented attention to women directors in the industry, but also because it was the first time the influential DGA had taken legal action on behalf of its female membership.

A decade after Judge Rymer’s decision, it seemed like progress was being made: The number of female directors had risen from less than 1 percent in 1985 to 16 percent in 1995, according to

But jump ahead 20 more years, and the numbers haven’t improved — in fact, they’ve gotten worse.

In January, The Guardian reported on a San Diego State University study that found that the number of female directors on the list of the top 250 highest-grossing films in the United States had declined by 2 percent over the last 17 years.

“It’s remarkable that we’re still at 1998 levels — whatever is being done to address this problem is not working and we need to look for industry-wide solutions,” said Dr. Martha Lauzen, the study’s author.

I’m pretty sure “remarkable” is a synonym for “shockingly terrible” in this case. Women only accounted for 7 percent of directors in the top 250 list for 2014, according to Lauzen’s study, and only Angelina Jolie and her uplifting prisoner-of-war drama “Unbroken” made the top 100.

Those statistics follow pretty closely to ones reported back in May on this blog from the Sundance Institute and Women in Film Los Angeles study, which found that across 1,300 top-grossing films from 2002 to 2014, only 4.1 percent of all directors were female.

That study, authored by Professor Stacy Smith and her team at USC’s Annenberg School, also found the ratio of male-to-female directed movies in competition at the Sundance Film Festival in that time period was about 3 to 1, while the ratio in the frame in terms of the top money-making movies was a little more than 23 to 1.

In a great feature for The Guardian rightly titled “The real Hollywood scandal,” Catherine Shoard last week analyzed the abysmal situation for women in movies and television, behind and in front of the camera. The concludes that what has halted any lasting change, despite three decades of efforts to open up industry opportunities for women, is, simply, “basic prejudice. Or, rather, to the potency and the self-perpetuating nature of the stories cinema has supplied for the past century.

“The fewer women seen in positions of power has a relation to the number who will come up through the ranks and be able to leverage change. Their work will therefore be valued less and their pay will be decided accordingly. Collusion in the system stretches right from studio CEOs to agents and actors and, finally, right down to us, the audience,” Shoard writes.

“We all get used to what we get used to,” Shoard quotes respected industry blogger and AWFJ member Anne Thompson of Thompson on Hollywood. “We’ve all internalised so much bull—-.”

It’s really hard to argue with that conclusion: As a general rule, nothing is more entrenched than a status quo. Shoard cites two key factors that may help close the gap: Internet technology – especially the Sony email hacks that helped put numbers and faces to the pay gap between top men and women actors and the rise of Netflix and Amazon into influential entities not just for streaming but for commissioning cinema and series — and economics — particularly, the success of Universal Pictures CEO Donna Langley, who last month led the studio to become the faster ever to make $3 billion, thanks in part to the box-office performance of three hits aimed at female audiences: Fifty Shades of Grey ($570 million), Pitch Perfect 2 ($282 million) and Trainwreck (about $80 million after three weekends in theaters, according to

The Guardian story from Shoard doesn’t mention the ACLU’s call for an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigation into the abysmal underemployment of women directors. In a May interview with Deadline, Coolidge said she wholeheartedly supports the investigation, but she said the civil rights group was wrong to blame the DGA for the problem.

“The DGA literally has nothing to do with hiring in this industry,” Coolidge told Deadline. “Nobody goes to the DGA and says, ‘Give us a list and we’ll hire only from this list.’”

“The DGA has worked harder and thrown more money at trying to solve the problems of discriminatory employment than anyone else in the industry,” Coolidge also told Deadline. “Despite the fact that its members are primarily men, they have put a remarkable amount of effort into representing and promoting women and minority directors.” Despite all the efforts, the situation for female directors looks more outdated and behind the times than the phone modems and monochromatic computer screens with green lettering in Coolidge’s Real Genius.

Quick hitters

Emma-Thompson_aap_1200– Add Oscar-winning actress and screenwriter Emma Thompson to the list of women in the industry who feels like ageism and sexism in the industry is getting worse instead of better. “I think it’s still completely s—, actually,” she says of the status quo in an interview with Radio Times. “I don’t think there’s any appreciable improvement and I think that for women, the question of how they are supposed to look is worse than it was even when I was young. So, no, I am not impressed, at all,” she says.

– Be sure to check out‘s list of “25 Female Directors You Should Know,” which does a nice job of rounding up the essential women helming in film, including the aforementioned Martha Coolidge, Andrea Arnold (Wuthering Heights), Jane Campion (The Piano), Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation), Ava DuVernay (Selma) and, of course, the first (and so far only) woman to win the best director Oscar, Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), along with 19 other notable woman helmers.

– Warner Bros. worldwide marketing and international distribution chief Sue Kroll will take over domestic oversight duties when the studio’s veteran distribution chief Dan Fellman exits at the end of the year, reports Kroll will become president of worldwide distribution, adding North America to her portfolio. International distribution chief Veronika Kwan Vandenberg will take over Fellman’s day-to-day responsibilities, continuing to report to Kroll. Her title will be president of domestic and international distribution.

– Applications are now open for the National Association of Latino Independent Producers’ Diverse Women in Media Residency Lab. Eight to 12 selected fellows will be invited Oct. 3-11 to the Artist Retreat Center in Vermont. Women filmmakers will workshop their documentaries, narrative scripts, or digital projects with distinguished mentors. Application deadline is Aug. 17. For more information or to apply, click here. 

thelma schoonmaker2small– Legendary film editor Thelma Schoonmaker, a three-time Oscar winner and AWFJ Spotlight for March 2014, is among the recipients of Directors Guild of America’s 2015 DGA Honors. Director/Producer Ron Howard, Teamsters Local 817 President Thomas J. O’Donnell, Director/Writer/Producer Tyler Perry and U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) also will be honored Oct. 15 at the DGA Theater in New York City.

“As we approach the 80th anniversary of the Directors Guild of America, it is with great pride that we pause to express our appreciation of five incredible leaders who have shaped the direction of the entertainment community,” said DGA President Paris Barclay in a news release.

“From an influential DGA and Academy Award-winning master filmmaker like Ron Howard, to a multi-hyphenate entertainment powerhouse and Atlanta business leader like Tyler Perry, to a renowned legislator and advocate for production incentives and job creation like Senator Chuck Schumer, DGA Honors recognizes both the visionary artists who create media as well as leaders in government and beyond. Our creative work is enriched by invaluable contributions of such craft masters as Thelma Schoonmaker, a trailblazing light in film editing, and labor leaders like Thomas J. O’Donnell, the President of Teamsters Local 817, who represents the fine professional crews that make up the beating heart of each production.”

– Film producers for the big-screen adaptation of Nancy Pickard’s novel The Scent of Rain and Lightning revealed initial casting last week, reports my excellent colleague Nathan Poppe of The Oklahoman.

Maika Monroe, best known from her role in the horror sleeper hit “It Follows,” and soon to be seen in “Independence Day: Resurgence,” will play the lead, Jody Linder, a woman whose world is rocked when she learns the man convicted of murdering her father has been released from prison and is returning to her small Kansas town.

Also joining the cast are Maggie Grace (“Taken,” “Lost”) and Brad Carter (“True Detective”). Grace also serves as a producer on the film.

Among the film’s producers are its Oklahoma-based screenwriters Casey Twenter and Jeff Robison, best known for 2014 Sundance Film Festival closing-night selection “Rudderless.”

Filming for The Scent of Rain and Lightning begins in Oklahoma in the fall. Actor-turned-director Blake Robbins (The Ugly Truth) will direct the film. The budget is estimated in the $3 million range, and the film is taking advantage of Oklahoma’s Film Enhancement Rebate, which offers a cash rebate of 35 to 37 percent on qualifying Oklahoma expenditures to film and television productions filming in the state.


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