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Getting Real About Reel Employment

| February 25, 2011

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Annual percentages of women employed in key behind-the scenes roles on top 250 grossing films (from "The Celluloid Ceiling: 2010"

Hollywood bigwigs don't want to hear it, but Martha Lauzen's figures do not lie: a few high-profile successes, however welcome, belie the stagnant status of women in the film industry. Here she suggests strategies for change.

Last year, Kathryn Bigelow rocketed into the public consciousness and film history with her spectacular Oscar wins for The Hurt Locker.  Her victory marked the first time a woman had ever earned Hollywood’s most coveted prize for best director.

Media accounts of her well-deserved success pondered whether Bigelow’s win would translate into greater behind-the-scenes employment opportunities for other women.  However, it seems unlikely that even the most impressive accomplishments of a single individual will remedy decades of biased employment practices.

For over a decade, I have studied women’s representation on screen and behind the scenes in film and television.  My team and I at the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University have monitored employment patterns and investigated the possible reasons for women’s continuing under-representation as cultural storytellers.  One of our annual studies, entitled The Celluloid Ceiling, tracks women’s employment as directors, writers, producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films.

According to the latest report for 2010, women comprised 7 percent of directors, 10 percent of writers, 15 percent of executive producers, 24 percent of producers, 18 percent of editors and 2 percent of cinematographers.  When considering all of these roles together, women accounted for just 16 percent of powerful behind-the-scenes individuals.

After last year’s jubilation surrounding Bigelow’s numerous accolades, these numbers reveal a sobering reality.  They expose the staggering odds against Bigelow—or any woman—directing a film, let alone winning an Oscar for doing so.  As directors, writers, and cinematographers, women aren’t just under-represented, they are truly a rarity.

The recent historical record of women’s employment in film suggests an industry highly resistant to change.  Over a decade ago, in 1998, women comprised 17 percent of all directors, writers, producers, cinematographers, and editors—one percentage point higher than in 2010.

The low numbers have prompted a variety of reactions from those within and outside the industry.  Some individuals have suggested that perhaps women aren’t interested in filmmaking.  However, informal surveys of the top film schools indicate that women are reasonably well represented in programs across the country, accounting for approximately one-third to over one-half of the student population.  Women want to work in the business.

Others have intimated that men are simply superior filmmakers as demonstrated by the larger box office grosses of their films, and should thus be favored over women.   However, one of our recent studies entitled Women @ the Box Office found that the size of the budget—not the sex of filmmakers—determines domestic and international box office grosses, as well as DVD sales.   When women and men filmmakers have similar budgets for their films, their box office grosses are also similar.

Industry reactions to women’s under-representation behind the scenes suggest an unwillingness to meaningfully address the issue.  When questioned about the numbers, studio heads frequently name a handful of women that their studio has worked with to prove that women who direct films are plentiful.  Of course, this focus on just a few high profile women proves nothing, other than the fact that there are so few women directing films for the studios that it is possible to name each and every one of them.

Blatant denial of women’s low numbers is not unheard of at industry panels and public events.   When confronted with the statistics, I’ve heard powerful individuals proclaim that the numbers must simply be wrong or that they somehow don’t accurately reflect women’s representation.  The use of such a strategy enables them to abdicate any responsibility for perpetuating the status quo while preempting calls for change.

Given this denial at the individual level and the industry’s track record, it is unlikely that the film business will change of its own accord.  Presenting the issue to legislators—perhaps in the form of congressional hearings—may be one strategy to effect real change.  The goal of such a forum could be an agreement on the part of the studios to re-evaluate their choice of projects and employment practices, and to implement programs to increase the numbers of women who direct, write, and shoot.  Anticipating cries of censorship from the studios, employing a more diverse set of individuals behind the scenes hardly seems like an attempt to narrow the points of view expressed in film.  To the contrary, such a move is likely result in a greater variety of characters and content.

Another strategy might involve obtaining pledges from industry groups and/or private funds to initiate a coordinated incentive program for those studios employing higher percentages of behind-the-scenes women on their films.  Major marketers of products for women might also be encouraged to make product placement deals with those studios and films employing higher percentages of women in powerful behind-the-scenes roles.

In the end, the victories—large and small—of any woman working in the film business are a cause for celebration and source of encouragement for women who make films.  When films employ women in powerful behind-the-scenes positions, the research shows that they make a difference.  Women tend to hire women for other behind-the-scenes positions in greater numbers than men, and their films feature more female characters.  Unfortunately, these women are still too few in number to level the uneven playing field that is Hollywood.  Perhaps public hearings and incentive programs could motivate the change that is long overdue.

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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