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Hollywood—Don’t They Want the Money?

Keri20 Putnam

The author of the annual Celluloid Ceiling report looks beyond the awards season coverage to tell us how Hollywood is treating women professionals—and audience members.

As this year’s Sundance Film Festival winds down and awards season ramps up, the news regarding women filmmakers brims with promise and disappointment.   When the festival announced that films directed by women would account for half of the 16 films in its dramatic competition this year, industry pundits took note, heralding the line-up as the beginning of “a movie industry revolution . . . shov[ing] Hollywood into the 21st century.”   But the news that members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences failed to nominate Kathryn Bigelow for a Best Director Oscar for "Zero Dark Thirty" prompted many film critics to cry foul, citing everything from sexism to an unspoken Academy tradition of not rewarding Oscar-winning filmmakers for their follow-up films. 

High-profile events such as these often confuse and obscure the actual status of women working behind the scenes in the film industry.  Are things getting better or worse for women who make films?  

According to my latest Celluloid Ceiling report examining women’s representation on the top 250 domestic grossing films, the fact is that not much changed for women over the last year.  While the percentage of women who direct increased from 5 percent in 2011 to 9 percent in 2012, in 2000 women accounted for 11 percent of directors.  Over the last 10 to 15 years, the percentage of women who direct has routinely bounced between 5 percent and 9 percent, with the 11 percent in 2000 representing a recent historical high.  In other roles, women comprised 25 percent of producers, 20 percent of editors, 17 percent of executive producers, 15 percent of writers, and 2 percent of cinematographers.  A whopping 38 percent of films employed 0 or 1 woman in the roles considered in the study.  Overall, women accounted for 18 percent of  behind-the-scenes individuals working in the these roles, just 1 percentage point more than in 1998.

In a recent New York Times article, film critic Carrie Rickey concluded that women who direct are slowly gaining ground, with the greatest improvement occurring in the independent realm.   It is true that women comprise a dramatically higher percentage of directors working on independent features, largely due to their representation on documentaries where women account for 39 percent of directors, according to a study of high-profile film festivals released by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.  Women are less abundant on independently produced narrative features where they account for 18 percent of directors (Independent Women).

However, reducing the reasons for the discrepancy in women’s employment to differences in the indie versus studio worlds may obscure one of the key causes for women’s greater success outside of Hollywood.  In January 2012, the Sundance Institute and Women in Film/Los Angeles announced a joint effort to examine the issue of the under-representation of women filmmakers.  According to Keri Putnam, executive director of the Sundance Institute, “Sundance Institute has long believed in the value of diverse story tellers contributing to a vibrant culture.  Looking at representation of women filmmakers is an important activity in that context, and we wanted to start our inquiry in our own organization.  What we’ve already found is that if statistics tell us a story, the story being told about women filmmakers today needs work.”

While the equal numbers of female and male directors included in this year’s dramatic competition at Sundance may not be a direct result of the specific effort launched last year, it is likely that the numbers do reflect an awareness that the gender imbalance exists, that this imbalance is a problem, and that steps need to be taken to correct the imbalance.  Putnam’s statement clearly indicates the value Sundance places on diversity, and a recognition of the shifting demographics of filmmakers.  

In stark contrast, a February 19, 2012 Los Angeles Times article quoted the now late Frank Pierson, a former president and governor of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as stating, “I don’t see any reason why the academy should represent the entire American population . . . We represent the professional filmmakers, and if that doesn’t reflect the general population, so be it.”

As the disconnect between the demographic profiles of those who hold the keys to film financing and distribution, and the filmmaking community becomes increasingly pronounced, the films being made necessarily become less culturally relevant.  It simply makes good business sense for the film studios specifically, and the film industry in general, to become more inclusive.  As Meryl Streep pointedly asked at a Women in Film/Los Angeles event last June, “Don’t they want the money?”

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