The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Women are shut out of directing roles, and it’s hurting movies

Fewer women behind the camera means fewer women in front of it.

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There are two moments each year when people pay attention to the film business on a global scale. The first is the Academy Awards. The second is Cannes, the world’s biggest and most prestigious film festival. Each year, images of stars walking the red carpet ricochet around the globe for the 10-day event, which begins tomorrow.

But the lights of Cannes also illuminate one of the biggest crises facing the film business: the lack of opportunities for female filmmakers. In the past decade, only 9 percent of the films in the main competition at the festival have been directed by women, according to data culled by Women and Hollywood, a project that advocates for gender parity in the entertainment industry. This year, that number is 10.5 percent. Cannes does has a few bright spots for women this time around: For the first time, a female director, Agnès Varda, will be awarded an honorary Palme d’Or. And for the first time since 1987, a film directed by a woman, Emmanuelle Bercot, will open the festival. But Bercot’s film is not included in the competition, which this year features only two female-directed projects.

The lack of women behind the camera is not a new problem, or one limited to Cannes. In 1979, six female directors began the Women’s Steering Committee at the Director’s Guild in response to their discovery that women were directing only .05 percent of work across all mediums. A class-action lawsuit against four of the studios was filed in 1983, and later dropped. The numbers crept up a bit for women in TV but had virtually no effect on feature films. The opportunities for female directors at the highest level of the film business continue to stagnate. According to the Los Angeles Times, in 2014, women directed only 4.6 percent of studio films. And new data from the Sundance Institute and Women in Film LA Female Filmmaker Initiative, analyzed by  USC’s Annenberg Center, showed that the top-grossing films from 2002 to 2014 were overwhelmingly directed by men, by a ratio of 23 to 1. In the 17 years that the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Films at San Diego State has been analyzing the top 250 grossing domestic films, the number of female directors has vacillated from 9 percent in 1998 to 7 percent in 2014.

The need for women behind the camera isn’t mere tokenism; the sex of the director makes a difference in who is shown on camera and how. According to one study, only 28 percent of speaking characters were female in films with exclusively male directors and writers. The presence of at least one female director and/or writer made that figure jump to 37 percent. The numbers are even starker when it comes to the sex of protagonists. Of movies with a female director or writer, 39 percent of the protagonists were female. When the director and writers were exclusively male, just 4 percent of protagonists were women.

And only 12 percent of the top 100 grossing films in 2014 had female protagonists. At the 2014 Oscars, not one of the nominated films for best picture featured a woman as the main character. Successful movies that star women are still seen as anomalies, and any failure is taken as proof that women aren’t bankable. This point was illustrated just this past week in an e-mail discovered through the Sony hack, in which the head of Marvel wrote to the Sony CEO about the historic failure of female superhero films and why these types of movies are problematic.

That particular e-mail also illustrates an incredibly difficult problem for female-centric content – the perception that the male experience is the norm for storytelling and heroism, and the female perspective is seen as the “other.” This misperception reverberates in Hollywood, where men continue to dominate at all levels of the business. Actress Anna Kendrick, who has headlined numerous successful projects and stars in “Pitch Perfect 2,” said in an interview with Glamour that she won’t be cast in an upcoming movie until the male stars are secured. Men are seen as potential “money,” while women are afterthoughts.

And while Hollywood may be a boys club in most of its leadership, it is not a boys club when it comes to the audience. According to the MPAA, women buy half of all movie tickets. It’s hard to imagine that studio executives actively conspire to keep women out, but research from the Female Filmmakers Initiative shows that when executives, sales agents and agents think about directors, they think male. When asked to describe directors, the industry professionals surveyed used gendered language, such as  “General Patton,” “tough as nails” and “muscular.” Women can become successful if they can fit those molds, such as Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow. Those same insiders also said they believed that there is a scarcity of talented women, that they are not as competent as men and that female directors lack ambition. Guys get recommended for jobs by other male directors because he “reminds me of me,” as director Brad Bird said about Colin Trevorrow when he recommended him for the upcoming “Jurassic World.”

But women are making inroads. After another revelation in the Sony hack regarding actresses’ unequal pay, Academy Award-winning actress Charlize Theron demanded, and received, pay equal to that for her co-star Chris Hemsworth for the sequel to “Snow White and the Huntsman.” Sam Taylor-Johnson broke the opening weekend record for a female-directed film for “50 Shades of Grey”: $85 million. And Patty Jenkins was just hired to helm “Wonder Woman,” which will make her the first woman to direct a live-action film — and the first one to direct a superhero film — with a budget of more than $100 million. Looking at the films to be released this year directed by women, we have, in addition to the aforementioned Sam Taylor Johnson, Elizabeth Banks, Niki Caro, Nancy Meyers, Patricia Riggen and Angelina Jolie directing films that could significantly affect the box office this year — up from just two – Ava DuVernay and Jolie last year. Additionally, this summer there are several films with female protagonists (though directed by men) that look to make waves at the box office, including “Spy,” starring Melissa McCarthy; “Trainwreck,” written by and starring Amy Schumer; and “Ricki and the Flash,” written by Academy Award winner Diablo Cody and starring Meryl Streep.

Films are the most democratic and universal way we communicate and share our stories. They are our cave drawings. Representation is key. It all goes back to the famous quote from Marian Wright Edelman: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” When we don’t have women telling stories or having women represented as protagonists, we are telling girls (and boys) that women’s voices, visions and experiences don’t count. We know that’s not true in the real world, and it’s time for this to change in our movies, too.