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Gender Inertia in Hollywood

| January 30, 2014

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photo credit: LAtourist.com

In 2013, Hollywood continued its fascination with action-oriented fare, offering an extensive menu of extravagantly budgeted but formulaic films intended to appeal to domestic and increasingly international markets. But for all of the frenzied activity on screen, the industry remains at a virtual standstill in its employment of behind-the-scenes women.

Last year, women comprised only 16 percent of all directors, writers, executive producers, producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 (domestic) grossing films, according to the 16th annual Celluloid Ceiling study released recently by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. This figure is one percentage point lower than it was 16 years ago.

In almost every major role tracked by the study, the percentages of women have declined over the last decade and a half. In 2013, women accounted for 6 percent of directors (9 percent in 1998), 10 percent of writers (13 percent in 1998), 15 percent of executive producers (18 percent in 1998), 17 percent of editors (20 percent in 1998), and 3 percent of cinematographers (4 percent in 1998). Only women producers experienced slight growth (25 percent in 2013 vs. 24 percent in 1998).

Although bloggers, individual filmmakers, and members of the women’s committees at the various guilds have nipped at Hollywood’s heels about this issue over the last decade, for the most part, those at the top of the Hollywood hierarchy remain conspicuously silent on the issue. Sony Pictures co-chairman Amy Pascal became an exception when, in a 2013 interview with Forbes magazine, she made what can only be characterized as a startlingly blunt and candid statement, “the whole system is geared for [women] to fail.”

How individuals perceive the root cause of the problem determines their prescription to treat the problem. Some industry observers think that women’s ongoing under-representation is due to the Hollywood “pipeline” lacking sufficient numbers of women; others point to women’s low visibility in the industry.

Perhaps sparked by the unusually high profile of women directors with films in the dramatic competition at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, journalists and pundits nearly swooned when discussing the soon-to-be burgeoning pipeline of women ready to fill A-list rosters in Hollywood. Those blithely using this mythical metaphor suggested that women directors with films at prominent festivals would automatically and directly experience successful careers in Hollywood. But as director/producer Jennifer Siebel Newsom (Miss Representation, The Invisible War) and I wrote in an article for The Huffington Post, the pipeline provides a poor description of how filmmakers’ careers progress. The route to Hollywood success is neither value-neutral nor gender-blind. The fact is that the pipeline is often shorter and more direct for male directors than for their female counterparts. Marc Webb’s meteoric rise as a director graphically illustrates this point. Webb had only directed a single romantic comedy—(500) Days of Summer— when Columbia tapped him to helm The Amazing Spider-Man. On the other hand, even women whose films excel at the box office often do not experience a similar boost in opportunity. After the fortunes of the first installment of Twilight soared under the direction of Catherine Hardwicke, she did not find herself inundated with offers, and the subsequent Twilight films were directed by men. In an October Variety interview, Hardwicke noted, “I thought after Twilight my life was going to be easy . . . it hasn’t been easy.” The pipeline seems to be a necessary but not sufficient solution to women’s under-employment.

Others posit that women’s under-representation may be resolved by greater visibility. In a recent article for Pacific Standard, “Why The Oscars Should Be Segregated by Gender,” Jake Flanagin proposed that the Academy bifurcate awards for those working in behind-the-scenes roles, doling out statues for “Best Director, Male; Best Director, Female.” Flanagin reasoned that while “awards shows are highly effective in elevating dramatic talent in a gender-egalitarian fashion, they do very little to improve the position of women behind the scenes.” Hollywood certainly enjoys and values copious visibility, and events promoting women’s talents and skills as filmmakers can be helpful, but how long would it be before the “women’s Oscars” were given out at a lower-profile event staged with fewer resources? Separate is rarely equal.

In a recent Variety article, New York Times critic Manohla Dargis astutely observed, ‘”The movie industry is failing women . . . and until the industry starts making serious changes, nothing is going to change.” Her comments implicitly recognize that women’s dramatic and ongoing under-employment is a big problem that is going to require big thinking, big leadership, and big actions on the part of Hollywood’s loftiest players. The immensity of the dilemma requires the heads of film studios and leaders of the guilds to acknowledge the dramatic lack of gender diversity as a serious threat to the industry’s ability to serve an increasingly diverse movie-going population. It remains for these leaders to work together in a concerted effort to change the gender dynamic behind the scenes.

Without such action, Hollywood’s propensity for grotesquely budgeted action features conceived of and executed by a shrinking demographic group (white males) will hasten the descent of the major studios into the type of myopic downward spiral described by Steven Soderbergh in his now infamous “State of the Cinema” speech last year. The industry is currently feeding on itself, recycling well-worn stories and offering an increasingly narrow slate of films that require higher ticket prices and ever-larger international audiences to buoy their prospects. New structures, practices, and programs that incorporate, embrace and seek out talented women would bring fresh voices to an industry desperately in need of alternative perspectives.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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