Female Directors Still Aren’t Trusted To Make “Man” Films

Actress and director Sarah Polley

Though Bridesmaids was considered a major breakthrough for women in Hollywood and it has been two years since Kathryn Bigelow won the Best Director Oscar, studios still don’t take big bets on movies directed by women. In the independent film industry, they have more options but they still aren’t making man-genre films that are funded by the big studios.

Industry insider Anne Thompson told Public Radio International, “The new indie model that is emerging is much more collaborative — barter talent, share roles,” she said. “All these filmmakers are sort of roaming the country helping each other make films in all these different locations and all these different ranges of experiences and it works. Women are really good at that kind of thing.” She cited Jennifer Westfeldt (Friends with Kids), Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are Alright) and Sarah Polley (Take This Waltz) as examples.

But Polley said even in the independent film world, women get pigeonholed in what kind of pieces they can do: women-centered dramas. She said “Women aren’t really trusted with anything else right now,” Polley said. “I know female filmmakers who would love to make an action film or a horror film or some kind of thriller and they just don’t get the financing for those kinds of movies. So I think that women aren’t necessarily trusted with [that] subject matter.” She noted that Kathryn Bigelow is a unique case because she is more of a “man’s director” but she was only able to do those man genres because she took the independent route. The Hurt Locker, which she won the Oscar for, was not a huge studio war film.

But it’s not like women have amazing representation in bigger films as well. According to a new report, “Females were ‘dramatically under-represented’ in the United States’ top 100 grossing films last year, accounting for 33% of all characters at a time when they made up nearly 51% of the U.S. population. The 33% is a slight increase from 2002 but it’s still not impressive. Plus though there were more female characters over all, there were less female protagonists. “Thus, while there are more female characters on screen today, fewer stories are told from a female character’s perspective,” according to Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University which conducted the study. The average female characters in last year’s films were younger than the male characters, less likely to be portrayed as leaders and more likely to be identified by their marital status (hmm I guess Bridesmaids didn’t help that cause.) It said that 73% of the female characters were Caucasian, 8% African American, 5% Latina and 5% Asian (with the rest in smaller categories, including aliens and animals).

The number of women in front of the camera is quite similar to the number working behind it as well. According to the most recent study from the center, women made up 18% of all directors, producers, writers, cinematographers and editors working on the 250 highest-grossing movies last year. That was only one percentage point higher than when the center began studying employment figures in 1998. “It is my impression that women are still viewed as “riskier hires” and, as a result, are not considered for the big-budget, high-profile films and/or films in genres other than romantic comedy and romantic drama,” Lauzen said in an interview last year.

But technology, like digital film, is helping more women make films with less money which means they don’t have to struggle to bring on as many investors. Lynn Shelton who just directed Your Sister’s Sister is a big advocate of this kind of filmmaking.

But women shouldn’t have to fight to get women-centered stories made because we have proven, with films like The Help and Bridesmaids, that people will pay money to go see these movies. But guess what they didn’t pay to go see this year? Films like John Carter and Battleship that cost millions to make. The marvelous Meryl Streep made a note of this at the Women in Film Crystal + Lucy Awards:

“In this room, we are very familiar with these dreadful statistics that detail the shocking under-representation of women in our business. Seven to 10% of directors, producers, writers, and cinematographers [are women] in any given year. This in spite of the fact that in the last five years, five little movies aimed at women have earned over $1.6 billion: The HelpThe Iron Lady believe it or not, BridesmaidsMamma Mia!, and The Devil Wears Prada. As you can see, their problems were significant because they cost a fraction of what the big tent-pole failures cost. . . . Let’s talk about The Iron Lady. It cost $14 million to make it and brought in $114 million. Pure profit! So why? Why? Don’t they want the money?”

So studios, let these talented women direct these films. If they can make a film about writing a book about racism in the 1960s then maybe they can make a movie about female zombies.

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