He, Himself, and Him
Without exception, the films nominated for best picture this year feature male protagonists. The titles of some of the films—Boyhood and Birdman—leave little doubt about the focus of the narratives. And although a number of films featuring female leads—The Hunger Games, Maleficent, Divergent—enjoyed great box office success in 2014, the Oscar nominees were culled from a field of movies lousy with characters in possession of a “y” chromosome.
Last year, females comprised just 12 percent of protagonists featured in the top 100 (domestic) grossing films, according to the latest It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World study. This represents a decline of 3 percentage points from 2013 and 4 percentage points from 2002. Females accounted for 29 percent of major characters, and 30 percent of all speaking characters last year. These figures represent no change from 2013.
In part, female characters remain underrepresented due to the dearth of women working behind the scenes. In 2014, women constituted 17 percent of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 (domestic) grossing films. This is the same percentage of women working in 1998. By role, women accounted for 7 percent of directors, 11 percent of writers, 19 percent of executive producers, 23 percent of producers, 18 percent of editors, and 5 percent of cinematographers.
A bright spot in the findings is the positive relationship between women working behind the scenes and the numbers of female characters on screen. In films with at least one woman director and/or writer, females represented 37 percent of all speaking characters, 33 percent of major characters, and 39 percent of protagonists. In contrast, in films with exclusively male directors, females accounted for 28 percent of all speaking characters, 28 percent of major characters, and 4 percent of protagonists.
If history tells us anything about the mainstream film industry’s propensity to change, it is that Hollywood shifts course only when under extreme and prolonged duress, and when substantial amounts of money are at stake. In the 1920s and 1930s, the studios found themselves facing considerable opposition to the racy content of their movies, and an attendant patchwork of state regulations requiring costly changes to their films. In response, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association created the Production Code Administration to oversee the implementation of a set of guidelines regarding film content. As a self-regulating entity endorsed by the studios, the PCA successfully quieted the various protests by members of religious groups and politicians who had grown increasingly impatient with what they perceived as values that were out of sync with those of many movie-goers at the time. The studios saved themselves untold aggravation in dealing with public opposition, and avoided the expensive financial consequences of government regulation. It was a rare instance when the studios voluntarily altered their practices to align more closely with their cultural environment. There are some obvious differences between the situation facing the industry in the early part of the last century and the current discontent regarding diversity. However, what the events of the early 20th century and today have in common is a disconnect between studio perceptions of the world and social attitudes.
Calls for greater diversity are multiplying and growing louder. The recent protests reached a crescendo in the days following the Academy’s announcement of the all-white roster of acting nominees and the complete absence of women nominees as directors, writers, and cinematographers. The issue now occupies considerable space in social media conversations, on websites, and in the mainstream media.
The current response of the studios and unions—including an assortment of small mentoring and shadowing programs—has not been sufficient to meaningfully address this ongoing problem. Within this vacuum of leadership, filmmakers have started to propose creative ways to work around the industry’s malaise. In a recent article on Indiewire, filmmaker Richard Guay suggested a “diversity incentive” be added to current state tax credit programs that subsidize television and film productions. Television programs and films featuring females, people of color, and members of the LGBT community as major characters and protagonists on screen, and in key behind-the-scenes roles, would receive a tax credit. Such a program connects socially responsible behavior with tangible financial gain. A small tweak in this initiative might specify that a certain portion of the on-screen and behind-the-scenes players be female to ensure that women benefit equally in the push for greater diversity of all kinds.
Solutions like Guay’s are becoming more abundant as this issue gains the heft of an inevitable social movement. Diversity in mainstream filmmaking is not an impossible goal to achieve and would be greatly aided if the powers-that-be had the will to employ some of the remedies currently being conjured by a variety of filmmakers. As is often the case, solutions to remain relevant in the marketplace are coming from the grassroots. Studio executives, union leaders, and the Motion Picture Association of America should listen. In today’s and more importantly tomorrow’s marketplace, diversity is relevance.
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