WMC News & Features

Still too few women behind the scenes in Hollywood

Boone Isaacs Cheryl

Last November, The Hollywood Reporter published its annual list of the most powerful women working in Hollywood. Somewhat surprisingly, amidst the well-deserved accolades for these high-achieving women, President and Chief Creative Officer Janice Min’s introductory letter offered an honest and stark assessment of women’s place in the community: “The acceptance of women as ‘lesser’ in Hollywood is so commonplace, it’s as if we’ve grown comfortable living with our own ugly furniture. We don’t even know it looks bad.” In a New York Times article published on that same day, film critic Manohla Dargis echoed this statement by observing that the film business treats women as “a distraction, an afterthought, and a problem.” The numbers for women’s behind-the-scenes employment in 2015 support this ongoing and unfortunate reality.

According to the annual Celluloid Ceiling study, women accounted for just 9 percent of directors working on the 250 top-grossing films in 2015. While the percentage of women who direct increased by 2 percentage points from 2014 to 2015, the 2015 figure is no better than that achieved in 1998.

Further, one out of three films—fully one third—employed 0 or 1 woman as a director, writer, executive producer, producer, editor, or cinematographer. In contrast, 1 percent of films employed 0 or 1 man.

By role, women comprised 11 percent of writers, 20 percent of executive producers, 26 percent of producers, 22 percent of editors, and 6 percent of cinematographers.

The low number of women serving as directors is particularly unfortunate, as these individuals not only provide much of the creative vision for films but they also may perform a gateway function, opening the door to employment in other important behind-the-scenes positions. For example, films with at least one female director were substantially more likely to employ women as writers and editors. On films with at least one female director, women comprised 53 percent of writers compared to 10 percent on films with exclusively male directors.

How did an industry known for being wildly liberal end up being so desperately out of touch with a cultural consciousness that supports gender diversity? The closed-system nature of the business and the propensity on the part of leaders in the community to blame others for the skewed gender ratios have been stultifying.

Filmmaking is a relationship business. People choose to work with others they have worked with before and/or who remind them of themselves. Numerous media stories have reported that Steven Spielberg handed Colin Trevorrow the directing gig for Jurassic World because Trevorrow reminded Spielberg of himself when he was young. These subconscious patterns of behavior replicate the choices of the past into some indefinite future. It’s an incredibly efficient system that largely closes the ranks of an industry to filmmakers who don’t share the demographic characteristics of the old guard.

There is also a palpable reluctance to do more than encourage others in the community to change their practices. In a 2015 press release introducing the Directors Guild of America’s inaugural study of diversity among directors working in film, President Paris Barclay noted, “The DGA . . . hopes to draw further attention to this serious matter so that industry employers can develop concrete director diversity plans.” And while the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recently responded to increasing pressure from a variety of sources—including the #OscarsSoWhite movement—by pledging to double the numbers of women and minorities among its ranks by 2020, the Academy has also dragged its feet on this issue. Just last September, President Cheryl Boone Isaacs stated, “While we have nothing to do with hiring, we’re encouraging our members to hire, mentor, and promote talent.” It is true that the Academy and DGA do not hire talent, but these organizations have done precious little to pressure the film studios into greater change. In turn, studio executives have made vague claims about wanting to do more about the gender imbalance, while disingenuously naming a handful of directors they have worked with as evidence that there is no “woman problem,” and if there is, it is not an issue for their particular studio. Whether the Academy’s promise to increase the numbers of members in under-represented groups will result in actual gains remains to be seen, and the DGA and studios have yet to make a similar vow.

When I started conducting the Celluloid Ceiling study back in 1998, Saving Private Ryan, Armageddon, and There’s Something About Mary were the top-grossing films and Sherry Lansing was chairman of Paramount’s Motion Picture Group. Fast forward 18 years. We survived Armageddon, and Sherry Lansing retired from the business—but women still comprise 9 percent of directors. Perhaps the current EEOC investigation into possible discriminatory hiring practices of directors will help to increase that percentage. In an industry where many individuals seem unwilling to look past their own reflection and no one is to blame, it seems the best hope—and perhaps the only hope—for real change.

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