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In Hollywood, Perception of Equality Doesn't Make it Real

July 25, 2006

With summer movie season upon us, a potential blockbuster opens each weekend on as many screens as possible throughout the local multiplex. By Sunday morning Hollywood executives know if they've got a hit or a flop. The choice this summer-Mission Impossible III, Superman Returns, Pirates of the Caribbean II-are highly reminiscent of summers past: boy-centric action films directed by men.

The sad truth is the trend is not new. But it occurs at a time when the film and media communities seem to believe that women in record numbers are powerful decision makers in Hollywood. This perception began 18 months ago when a New York Times article, heralding Hollywood's New Old Girls' Network, declared that women "have finally buried the notion that Hollywood is a man's world."

But the reality today does not meet the perception. When that article was published in April 2005, women ran production at four of the six major Hollywood studios. Within the last week, the number fell to two and each of those women reports to a male boss.

Gender disparity runs rampant throughout the Hollywood studio system. Martha Lauzen from San Diego State University has tracked women working behind the scenes in top grossing films for several years. The 2005 statistics are out and the news is grim. Lauzen’s The Celluloid Ceiling reports that "women comprised 17% of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films.” The percentage was the same in 1998.

Looking only at directors, the most creative position in Hollywood, the numbers are humbling: women were at 7% in 2005, up from the year before but down from an all-time high of 11% in 2000. Other measurements confirm Lauzen’s research. The Director’s Guild reports only 13% women among its 7,400 directing members. Variety stats list just three women directors of 2005’s top 100 grossing movies. Angela Robinson comes in at number 38 with a remake of Herbie Fully Loaded, Nora Ephron at 42 with Bewitched and Clare Kilner at 88 with The Wedding Date.

Why are there not more women directing movies? To begin with Hollywood remains a business of relationships, and the male executives are comfortable with male directors. "Male competency is assumed,” says Lauzen. “Female competency is frequently if not always questioned." According to Nikki Finke, columnist from LA Weekly and Deadline Hollywood blogger, if women have “one movie that doesn't perform they are punished more harshly." Remember Penny Marshall? She was a huge directing star after Big and A League of Their Own. She hasn't directed a film since Riding in Cars with Boys in 2001. Mimi Leder, plucked by Steven Spielberg from the TV set of ER, directed the action movies Deep Impact and The Peacemaker. But she hasn't directed on the big screen since Pay it Forward in 2000.

How could a community that prides itself on its liberalism and progressivism fail so miserably in this area? At the top film schools UCLA and NYU, women and men study film in roughly equal numbers. Are women not tough enough to handle the all-consuming role of director, or unwilling to sacrifice for the chance? Martha Lauzen says she knows many directors, who happen to be women, who would say, “I have a husband and kids, but if I can get that job I'll work that out."

Perhaps women do not even want to direct the monster budget, boy-focused films that seem to be Hollywood’s favorite product. Probably no director would turn down a job, but look at Nancy Meyers, whom Nikki Finke calls "the most successful woman director working today." Able to tap into the "zeitgeist" with stories that resonate with women, Meyers worked for years as screenwriter on Father of the Bride and other films her husband directed. Her success reached another level when she began writing and directing, with Something’s Gotta Give, the 2003 film starring Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson. Her film The Holiday, starring Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz, is slated for release later this year.

But without incentive to change, the status quo will remain in Hollywood, especially at a time when the studios are contracting. “Sometimes I think being labeled sexist in that community is not seen as negative but a badge of honor," says Martha Lauzen. Maybe Hollywood can learn from political women who have made concerted efforts to build a pipeline of candidates. Perhaps a consortium of women opening an independent studio, suggests Nikki Finke. One thing is clear from Lauzen's research: Hollywood’s women support each other when given the chance. "In both TV and film, when women are in a position to hire others they hire women at a greater rate then do men."

If ever there is a true "Old Girls Network," women could make films just as good—or as bad—as their fellow male directors. For now, Hollywood should stop pretending that women have power and actually work to get them some.

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