In what has become a weekly ritual as reliable as Tuesday following Monday, a batch of statistics landed in film writers’ e-mail inboxes recently. Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, had one of her usual batches of enlightening numbers to share: In 2014, films with female directors employed “substantially” higher percentages of women in other key behind-the-scenes roles. In the first study of its kind, Lauzen’s research of the 700 top-grossing films of the year found similar results when women accounted for at least one-third of the movies’ teams of producers.
Seen through one lens, Lauzen’s findings were cheering, indicating that, when women are in charge, we tend to make way for other women to be collaborators. Seen through another, the outlook is more dismal: Women still account for just 20 percent of all directors, writers, producers, editors and cinematographers working on the top-grossing films.
Lauzen’s latest study arrived in the midst of a noisy year regarding gender and ethnic diversity in Hollywood: No sooner had Patricia Arquette called for pay equity during her acceptance speech at the Oscars than Salma Hayek barnstormed through Cannes, scolding the movie industry for ignoring female filmgoers, especially middle-aged ones. Rose McGowan took to Twitter to shame a sexist casting call for an Adam Sandler comedy (and was fired by her agent for her trouble). Meanwhile, producer Effie Brown has become the no-nonsense heroine of the HBO series “Project Greenlight,” in which she’s routinely called on to manage the clueless entitlement of her white male collaborators, while actress Jennifer Lawrence wrote an essay admitting that she’s been reluctant to ask for salaries equal to her male co-stars, for fear of being perceived as “difficult” or “spoiled.”
Lawrence’s reticence is understandable. It’s all too easy to dismiss lack of parity within the entertainment industry as an arcane problem that only affects cosseted actors on one hand, or embittered erstwhile auteurs on the other. What too often goes missing in the discussion is the enormity of what’s being lost — to the industry, and especially to audiences — when American movie culture is represented by one gender and race, in front of and behind the camera.
The most obvious, and quantifiable, loss is financial: Hollywood has long been in a thrall to teenage boys, to whom it began catering in the 1980s, when it discovered that young males tended to see films in groups, and more than once. This year, “Jurassic World” and “Star Wars” — both throwbacks to the boy-centric years of the early blockbuster era — will surely be Hollywood’s highest grossers. But for pure profitability, when gross revenue is compared to relatively modest budgets, diversity will most likely win the day, from the N.W.A. biopic “Straight Outta Compton” and “Furious 7” to such hits as “Cinderella,” “Fifty Shades of Grey,” “Perfect Pitch 2” and “Inside Out.” In Hollywood parlance, these films were all “overperformers,” but that language belies a fundamental misunderstanding of an audience eager to see as vibrant and pluralistic a universe on screen as they inhabit in real life.
At the Middleburg Film Festival in October, Meg Ryan reflected on the self-fulfilling prophecy of a male-dominated industry that constantly, reflexively caters to its own image. “They say Hollywood makes the most money when they market to adolescent males,” she noted. “They figured out how to market to the adolescent male. They can figure out how to market to anyone. . . . It just takes a little extra step of imagination and will.”
Ryan was part of a mini-juggernaut of female filmmakers at Middleburg, where such films as “Suffragette,” “Carol,” “45 Years” and Ryan’s directorial debut, “Ithaca,” had their local premieres. Over coffee on a sunny Saturday morning, Ryan talked about the issues of sexism and unconscious gender bias with director Catherine Hardwicke, whose movie “Miss You Already” was also on the program. It was Hardwicke, “Twilight” fans remember, who directed the first movie in that game-changing franchise and made box-office history when the movie cleared nearly $400 million. Although she insists to this day that she alone decided not to direct the next installments, she bemoaned the fact that every director of “Twilight’s” sequels, as well as such follow-ons as “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent” and “Beautiful Creatures,” has been a man.
“There’s that many men, maybe 10 or 12, who now have these huge profitable movies on their résumé, which makes them all the more qualified to direct the next thing, because they’ve got a track record,” she said, explaining one of the many ways women are left off lists to direct high-profile motion pictures. This “leaky pipeline” phenomenon, whereby women routinely fall out of contention, starts in film schools and continues through festivals, first projects and higher-profile opportunities. (The issue came to light earlier this year in a study sponsored by the Sundance Institute and Women in Film Los Angeles.)
When ‘Twilight’ made $400 million, my next job actually took a year and a half to happen, and I got paid less, with a lower budget,” Hardwicke said. “I didn’t get that three-picture deal like the guys did after they made a $400 million movie. I didn’t get asked, ‘What do you want to do next?’ ” That, she added, was when “the scales fell from my eyes. . . . It wasn’t me.”
An argument could be made that plenty of those male directors did a perfectly competent job of bringing those stories to the screen. But how many equally suitable if not better filmmakers were never even considered for projects that could have been vastly improved by the specificity of their visions and voices? Women don’t bring an essential, unified sensibility to the films they make: Kathryn Bigelow doesn’t bring an identifiable female approach to her films any more or less than Ridley Scott brings an explicitly male perspective to his. What both filmmakers bring is the accumulation of taste, intelligence and technical skills that they have gained through experience as individuals, artists and industry players. By consistently limiting the available talent pool to what Hardwicke calls the “pale and male,” agents and executives are missing out on voices that could save their industry, not just financially but aesthetically — a point New York magazine’s Vulture site brought home last week with a list of 100 great women filmmakers that continued to grow at a galloping rate once social media weighed in.
It’s the fact that entertainment has become such a monoculture that distresses writer-director Jessie Nelson, whose holiday family dramedy “Love the Coopers” opens on Nov. 13. “They’re really limited in the kinds of stories they’re telling right now,” Nelson said of the film industry during a recent phone conversation. “I felt that watching the Emmys this year, when Jill Soloway won for ‘Transparent’ and Lisa Cholodenko and Frances McDormand won for ‘Olive Kitteredge.’ So many beautiful pieces of work were done by women that may not have found their way five or 10 years ago. Hollywood should be telling all different kinds of stories, whether they come from men or women.”
Nelson shared a revealing anecdote wherein a journalist once described her as looking “more like a mother on her way to a PTA meeting” than a film director. “And I thought, ‘Isn’t that interesting, that this isn’t what we think a director looks like?’” Several years later, Nelson’s film is joining something of a critical mass of films directed by women that are opening this month, a list that includes “Suffragette,” “By the Sea,” “Miss You Already,” “Heart of a Dog” and “The 33.”
And a tipping point might finally be within sight. In Middleburg, Hardwicke said she was planning on testifying for an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigation of discrimination within the film industry, adding that she was optimistic that “hearts and minds will want to change.” Rather than lists of directors and screenwriters “with one woman’s name on it and 20 guys, no. It needs to be 50-50. . . . If everybody takes that pledge, we’re not going to be talking about this in a year.”
Barely a week later, Reese Witherspoon echoed those sentiments when she called for equal representation in front of the camera as well. “Women make up 50 percent of the population, and we should be playing 50 percent of the roles on the screen,” Witherspoon said upon receiving the American Cinematheque Award in Los Angeles. Calling for more images of “female surgeons, Supreme Court justices and soldiers” on screen, she added that women should no longer be limited to playing “girlfriends to famous men.”
This, finally, may be the highest price that sexism exacts: a psychic one, borne not just by film professionals but by the people who consume the images that they create. Just as female directors have had to overcome macho ghosts of John Ford and Sam Peckinpah to prove that they can capably lead casts and crews, so do viewers have to overcome systematic erasure and caricature within our dominant narrative medium.
“You have to see it to be it,” Nelson told me. How many women today grew up with sporadic portrayals of women as protagonists with autonomy and agency? What’s more, how many men have had to overcome a distorted version of masculinity that allows only a narrow, hyperbolically violent form of emotional expression? How many toxic messages has each sex uncritically internalized as a social norm, in the guise of entertainment and escapist fun?
When I asked Ryan whether sexism in the film industry had been on her radar, her response was swift. “No,” she replied sharply. “My daughter’s on my radar. She’s 10, and she’s starting to pay attention to movies and television shows. She loves ‘Mulan,’ she loved ‘Frozen.’” It’s gratifying,” Ryan added, “to see somebody that young get filled up by possibility and a different kind of hero.”
The question, now, is what kind of heroes today’s 10-year-olds will see as 20- and 30- and 40-year-olds. Whether they’re economic, artistic or existential, the stakes couldn’t be higher.