If one is a film director and also a woman she has inevitably been asked, probably ad nauseum, “What’s it like to be a female filmmaker?” I shudder to recall how I used to respond, telling countless interviewers how I saw no difference in the treatment of my male filmmaking peers as compared to myself, except that I tended to score a lot more free drinks at the festivals. Oy.
In my defense, I wasn’t entirely off base. I truly did not see the difference, hence why they call it a glass ceiling—it can be nearly invisible if you’re not looking for it. But just like those birds in the Windex commercials, if you insist on flying, you’re bound to eventually smack up against the glass.
And so I have. And so has every female director I know. And I know many. A couple years back I was in the company of an especially impressive group of them. We were selected for this prestigious opportunity to be hand-groomed as potential directors of big-budget franchise films by one of the major studios—part of its campaign to hire more female directors. Why said studio didn’t simply hire more female directors is beyond me, but hoping to find out, I accepted this invitation to this exclusive “training program.” Mind you, I do not call it that to suggest we were being trained to direct. Every last one of us already had ample directing experience, many being full-time working professionals in both film and TV. Rather, we were there, I guess, to better understand how things run at this higher level on the cinematic food chain where so few female directors get to tread. Funny, as I’ve heard no instance of any male director having to jump through such hoops for his first shot at a big film (cough, COLIN TREVORROW, cough, cough), but hey, I was there to learn.
And did I ever.
The most telltale anecdote from the experience regards our Q and A with one of said studio’s favorite go-to male directors, a fellow in his early 40s who’s been in their system for the past 10+ years. One of my peers asked him to describe his first interview for a big-budget, studio-level directing gig. A pleasantly laid back chap, he admitted he’d been nervous at first, but luckily he and the producer dudes quickly discovered they were all fellow stoners and thus instantly formed a bond. Then, moments later, he sealed the deal by mentioning some humorous anecdote from a session with his therapist.
I kid you not.
All I could think is, “Wow. If an emerging female director went into such a job interview and mentioned that she regularly smoked pot AND regularly saw a therapist, not only would she not land that job, she’d likely never land any job ever again, inevitably being labeled a “junkie nutjob.” But not the case for this fellow, who’s been regularly helming studio pictures ever since, and will likely continue to despite the enormous failure of his big budget bomb which came out weeks after this eye-opening Q & A. As I sat in the nearly empty theater watching this abomination (unlike the four people in front of me who wisely walked out never to return), I thought about Patty Jenkins— who had not directed a feature in 14 years since her debut—WHICH WON A FREAKIN’ OSCAR!
Hmmm. For context, let’s do a quick bit of math.
Jenkins’ Monster came out in 2003, winning an Oscar in 2004, the same year the aforementioned male director got noticed for his film school thesis short, which he himself, during our Q and A, labeled a “crappy…” (or was it ‘shitty?’ I forget) …little short” with no real plot, but it looked amazing (his paraphrased words, I myself have not seen it.) Since that time he’d been hired to direct four theatrically-released features with budgets ranging from approximately double to ten times the budget of Monster, with several more currently shooting or in development.
So, these numbers plagued my mind in a nearly empty theater late into opening weekend of this guy’s painfully bad film. At this point, Wonder Woman had not yet come out, and while I had absolute faith Jenkins would make it a winner, like most women I know, I couldn’t help but wonder, “What will it mean for female directors if she does not?” And the reason we ask such asinine questions is because the powers-that-be insist upon this double standard. Men are allowed to make crappy movies, and do, all the time. But women can expect no such luxury.
At a festival this past year, I sat on a panel about women in film with a director whose employment prospects were directly impacted by the reaction to Wonder Woman. She’d delivered a successful pitch to a major production company who was very interested in a screenplay she’d written. In fact they wanted it outright, that is, provided she detach herself as director. No matter that she had both the original vision and the chops to pull it off with a reel and references to prove it. The male producers told her no way, no how. That was a Thursday afternoon. That night Wonder Woman had its world premiere. That weekend it broke major records. On Monday the producers called my director friend back. “Okay, let’s talk some more” they said. “Maybe you can direct.”
It’s no surprise to learn that the film industry is not a meritocracy. If it were, the same myopic gatekeepers would not be permitted to crank out one bad movie after another with no apparent repercussions. But that’s a whole other problem we need to address (and will in an upcoming post). More pressing is what we’re to do about this particular double standard.
According to the CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF WOMEN IN FILM & TELEVISION, “Women accounted for 11% of directors working on the top 250 films in 2017, up 4 percentage points from 7% in 2016 and even with the percentage achieved in 2000.” And the numbers are far worse for women of color. You can count them on one hand.
You’d think that means there’s a dearth of female directors, but that’s simply not the case.Half of film school students are women . Endless festivals that exclusively screen the work of female directors get thousands of submissions each year. There’s no shortage of female directors or of fantastically talented female directors with impressive track records — just an egregious shortage of support and recognition for their work. And we’re not just talking about studio level opportunities. That pesky glass ceiling lies lower than you might think.
For example, in the making of, say, a micro-budget feature under $100k, in many if not most cases, cast and crew are far less likely to work for reduced rates, or free, for a female director than a male one—even when she’s got production insurance and he has not; even when her track record includes impressive festival runs, numerous awards and distribution, and his does not; and even when she provides proper catering and decent housing, and he does not (yes, these are all based on countless real life examples.) And given such discrepancies, say this under $100k film directed by a woman who has had to shell out considerable more money to pay professionals (or even nonprofessionals) and additional support will not enjoy the same production values as a $100,000 film directed by a man who’s been granted freebies in abundance. I’m not saying this always happens, but it happens a lot. And it just gets worse as the budgets increase, as noted in the little math experiment above.
Why does this happen? The ACLU has reported an “unconscious bias,” based on the “pervasive perception that hiring women directors is more ‘risky’ than hiring men; even men with less experience.” But such attitudes are nothing new—and they’re not limited to the film industry, they’re limited to the biases inherent in patriarchal society. Which is why we need FEMINISM more than ever.
Next up from me, A Call to Action Against Ineffective Feminism, Part 1.
Back in two weeks.
© 2018 BeyondTheBechdel. All Rights Reserved.