Sundance shines spotlight on Hollywood’s lack of female directors

sundance 2018 female directcors directors half the picture
Half the Picture

When the Oscar nominees were announced on January 23, it may have surprised some to learn that Rachel Morrison (Mudbound) is the first female cinematographer to receive an Oscar nomination in Academy Awards history. Kathryn Bigelow is the sole female director to win an Oscar, which she received for The Hurt Locker in 2009. Greta Gerwig, who is on the list this year for Lady Bird, is one of only five women directors to ever earn a nomination. When you hear some of the statistics that were rattled off at the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s “Women Breaking Barriers” panel at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, it’s pretty clear to see why: The odds are against women who work behind the camera.

Citing research from Dr. Stacy Smith and the University of Southern California Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, panel moderator Elisabeth Sereda pointed out that of the top 1,100 films released from 2007 to 2017, only four percent of the directors were female, which constituted a ratio of 22 males for every female director. Look at the four percent more closely, and you’ll see only four black women, three Asian women, and one Latina directed any of those movies. Dr. Martha M. Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, looked at the 3,011 people working on the 250 highest-grossing movies of 2017 and found the following percentages were women: 25 percent of producers, 19 percent of executive producers, 16 percent of editors, 11 percent of writers, 11 percent of directors, and four percent of cinematographers. Sereda called the numbers “abysmal.”

For every female director, there are 22 men helming the highest-grossing films.

“I always get a little surprised,” RBG  Carla Gutierrez told Digital Trends. “I know so many female editors… but I’m always surprised to hear, oh, it’s only 30 percent of us in the documentary world. It’s like, anecdotally we’re drawn to each other, and sometimes we have to step back and hear what’s really happening.”

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the Me Too and Time’s Up movements, there was something in the air at Sundance. The festival’s numbers were a little better, with women directing about 38 percent of the films. Seeing Allred (Roberta Grossman and Sophie Sartain), The Tale (Jennifer Fox), RBG (Julie Cohen and Betsy West), Madeline’s Madeline (Josephine Decker), and I Think We’re Alone Now (Reed Morano) all had female directors.

As part of the HFPA’s panel, producer Cathy Schulman, who sits on the Women in Film’s board of directors, said, “When the amount of money involved to create a piece of film or television increases, the involvement of women decreases.” That’s not a guess but a trend she and Dr. Smith found via research and over 1,100 interviews. During her panel and the “Road to 50/50” panel, cinematographers, directors, actresses, and producers discussed how to make the ratio more balanced.

sundance 2018 female directcors directors shape of water
Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer (Fox Searchlight)
Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer (Fox Searchlight)

Octavia Spencer (The Shape of Water) teared up during her panel while explaining a conversation she had with Jessica Chastain. The pair were planning on teaming up for a holiday comedy and were discussing the pay disparity between men and women in Hollywood. “If we’re going to have that conversation about pay equity, we’ve got to bring women of color to the table,” Spencer told Chastain. — women of color make far less than white women. Chastain then insisted that they’d earn the same salary, and the two together negotiated a figure five times their original asking price. Spencer credits Chastain’s role as producer with giving them that bargaining power, but also said her co-star with “walking the walk” when it comes to true equality in the industry.

Instead of hiring the “best people… I started to say, ‘I want my sets to be diverse’”

Getting more women into the role of producers is one block in rebuilding a more equitable structure. Schulman describes the three sides of a pyramid that all need to come into balance to affect real change: a pipeline of diverse people who can work in the different roles (and a willingness to invest in ways to get newcomers the appropriate skills), a cultural shift that moves from unconscious bias (which can cause companies to keep hiring only the people like those at the top) to conscious inclusion, and tapping into and communicating with the diverse market to address what kinds of content they want to see (and in the process, make studios and networks money).

ReFrame, which Schulman co-founded along with Keri Putnam, executive director of the Sundance Institute, is a project aimed at addressing the triangle’s three sides. It provides toolkits for organizations looking to become more diverse; helps give women mid-career a boost to the next level; and gives a stamp of approval to TV shows and movies that have a certain percentage of women working on them.

On her panel, producer Stephanie Allain (Dear White People) said she realized there was a vicious cycle going on when she insisted on only hiring “the best people.” There were plenty of great people who simply didn’t have the resumes, because they were missing all the opportunities when studios passed them over for someone with experience. “I started to say, ‘I want my sets to be diverse’,” she said.

Even though Allain jokes about creating an “old girls’ club” with powerful females calling up executives to get other women hired — “That’s how the dudes do it,” she said — the goal isn’t to push men to the sidelines. There’s a reason one of the panels was called “The Road to 50/50.” During both panels, all the participants agreed men have to be involved in the process. They can pull a Chastain and use their clout to ensure female co-stars get paid fairly, for example. Director Amy Adrion (Half the Picture) brought up the fallout from Mark Wahlberg insisting on $1.5 million to reshoot All the Money in the World versus Michelle Williams requesting only $1,000 per diem: “It’s great that Mark Wahlberg donated his $1.5 million to the Time’s Up campaign, and as well he should, but I hope he also told his agent, ‘Why don’t you fight for your female clients the same way you fight for me?’” (Both Williams and Wahlberg are represented by the same agency.)

If part of the shift is a more diverse pipeline, Leimert Park creator Mel Jones sees the internet and technology as one way to amplify voices that are often ignored. “It empowers women to do a lot more without having to wait for permission,” she said, “And then we can prove to everyone with the metrics and with the numbers that we have an audience we can connect to.”

Many panelists and women we interviewed did sense that a transition that was already taking place when the Weinstein news broke. Just two years ago, producer Liz Destro said she was in a buyer’s meeting when someone asked her to fetch a coffee. In her nine years of attending Sundance, it’s only recently that she’s not the only woman in the room at these meetings. “I feel like there’s way more women, and there’s way more black people,” Jones told Digital Trends, especially in the director role. Having gone to the festival for several years, she said, “I remember going to the parties and being like, ‘[hums] I’m the only one.’ That’s fine. I live in L.A.; I’m used to that. Right now it’s a moment of change and good change.”

For Allain, it’s a change that’s just starting: “Look, I’m encouraged, but I will just say it again, the revolution is not live until all of the gatekeepers look like everybody in America.”

This article is part of a series of reports from the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Digital Trends was a guest of Adobe Premiere Pro during the event.


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