Tessa Thompson is an actress and producer soon to be seen in “Men In Black: International.” Nithya Raman is the executive director of Time’s Up Entertainment.
“We’d love to hire her. But…”
That’s the phrase we’ve heard countless times from the women within the Time’s Up Entertainment network as they recount their experiences and the experiences of their peers in various rooms across the industry.
“But, she’s never directed a $100 million movie, or a superhero tentpole, or a previous blockbuster that also involved an action sequence with multiple cars exploding at the same time while aliens destroy the earth…”
“She’s great,” they continue. “But. It’s. Just. Too. Risky.”
The void created by that perceived risk will be apparent during Sunday’s Oscars, where, as is too often the case, no women are nominated for best director and no movies directed by women are contending for best picture. The consistent omission of many talented women from nominations isn’t just an academy problem, it’s an industry problem.
Over the past decade, only 4 percent of top studio films were directed by women. But 27.8 percent of movies in competition at Sundance, one of the most prestigious film festivals, were directed by women. Obviously women are out there directing real movies; they’re just not being offered the reins to big studio films. There is a pipeline of female directors ready and willing to take on bigger projects, but a bottleneck at the top of that pipeline still prevents decision-makers from hiring those women. Who wants to risk it?
The funny thing about this risk, though, is that it appears to be incredibly gender-specific. Stories of talented men successfully making the leap from near obscurity to big studio movies continue to power Hollywood dreams. Christopher Miller and Phil Lord had directed 13 episodes of the TV show “Clone High” before they got the chance to direct the $100 million animated adaptation of “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.” Rian Johnson jumped from smaller movies such as “Brick” and “Looper,” as well as shows such as “Breaking Bad,” to directing a “Star Wars” movie. These are incredibly talented directors who deserve every opportunity they have been given. But when only nine women have ever directed movies with budgets over $100 million, you have to wonder what’s really going on.
And that’s not even to mention a different kind of risk studios seem willing to take on more established directors. Lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct were filed against Bryan Singer as early as 1997, yet he was still tapped to direct “Bohemian Rhapsody,” from which he was eventually fired. The potential for awful publicity and the logistical hassles of having to replace a director, as well as potentially risking the safety of one’s cast and crew, seem a lot more consequential than the possibility that a young director of any gender will have to step up to a new professional challenge.
One thing that is clear, however, is that the demand needs to be there to counteract the perceived “risk.” If industry-leading actors demand to work with a female director, suddenly that very talented woman whose debut film was the talk of a prestigious film festival won’t seem like such a risky choice for a studio tentpole. Men, after all, have been smoothly making the transition for years.
Earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, a group including directors Paul Feig and Angela Robinson, producers Franklin Leonard and Nina Jacobson, and actor Amy Schumer, in partnership with USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and Time’s Up Entertainment, came together to announce the 4% Challenge. This public pledge committed the people who took it to working with a female director over the next 18 months. They dubbed it the 4% Challenge because — appallingly, but not surprisingly — only 4 percent of the top 1,200 studio films over the past decade were directed by women. Within days, a group of more than 100 individuals, including A-list actors, powerful producers and, now, seven major studios, had signed onto the challenge.
Many of those names were male, which is crucial because this shift can’t happen without influential men also putting themselves on the line to help enact change. Armie Hammer, one of the very first to sign on to the pledge, noted that despite working in film for about a dozen years, he was embarrassed that he had only recently worked with a female director for the first time. “Which is, if you consider the population, there are more women than men, that’s kind of crazy statistically speaking,” he said. But it’s very much the unexamined norm in this industry, which is why realizations — and commitments — such as Hammer’s are so vital.
The first studio to commit to the pledge was Universal Pictures, led by Donna Langley. Bob Iger quickly followed by announcing that 40 percent of Disney’s upcoming movie slate will be directed by women. These studio-level commitments are particularly important because, to date, there has not been a single year when every single one of the major studios had even one film directed by a woman on their slates.
That 4 percent statistic reflects an industry-wide blind spot that stems from a series of intentional decisions made at so many junctures throughout the process of creating a film. The 4% Challenge alone certainly will not alter systemic problems that have plagued this industry since its formation, but every person or entity that has signed on represents someone who will be thinking and hiring differently in the next 18 months. Tools such as Alma Har’el’s Free the Bid, an amazing database of female directors all around the world, are being created to empower decision-makers with the information they need to make more creative hiring choices. The 4% Challenge is just one example of many extraordinary efforts across the industry, demonstrating that progress is possible and that the scale is tipping in the right direction.
So yes, applaud the winners on Sunday, and throw some popcorn at the screen in honor of the many talented women and projects who aren’t represented among the nominees. But on Monday, let’s roll up our sleeves and continue to work to change this system.