In 2019, BBC News published an article about the abysmally low rate of women film directors across the globe. But this trend seems to be changing in Hollywood, as a 2020 report observes that the number of female directors in Hollywood has reached an all-time high.
Not only this, but the number of women directing top-grossing films has also increased. This shows that we are progressing towards a more balanced female representation in the film world.
The Celluloid Ceiling reports by the Center for Study of Women In Television and Film share the numbers: 16% of the top-grossing films of 2020 were helmed by female directors. Though the number is still low, it has grown considerably from the previous years. In 2019, it was only 12% and in 2018, a dismal 4%.
The Lead-Up to Change
It seems that the upsurge in the women directors taking the lead is owed, in part, to the #TimesUp movement. Though it began as a movement to speak out about sexual abuse and sexual harassment towards women at their work, home, society, and everywhere else, it also included a call for more gender parity in the workplace.
This movement also created some ripples in the film industry, uncovering the harsh realities of the film industry especially when it comes to young actresses getting harassed at the hands of often male veteran actors and directors.
Studios have begun turning more and more toward women directors to lead the making of a film, where people involved in all areas of a film’s production might feel more safe working on a set controlled by a woman in an otherwise predominantly male-dominated industry.
These Changes Are Also Observed in Other Film-Making Fields
The same reports mentioned above also found that women occupied 21% of the seats for a film’s production, working as directors, writers, producers, editors, cinematographers, and other related posts in 2020.
In 2020, the film world came to our homes and thus began a new trend of ‘Watch At Home’ movies. During this time too, there was an increase in the women technicians who were involved in making it possible.
Looking at these trends, the head of the Center for Study of Women In Television and Film, Dr. Martha Lauzen, says she is happy to see an upward swing in the women being employed as directors and into other posts, but that it’s a bit odd to talk about these things and brand them as historic heights. Women are still a long way from parity.
Audience Response to Female-Directed Films
There is a flaw in how we think about the roles and responsibilities involved in filmmaking. Dr. Lauzen raises a point in this direction. She says that when we think about roles like cinematographer, writer, producer, or director, a male image comes to mind immediately. People then go to watch movies assuming the director is a man as a baseline.
This actually works to the benefit of women directors, as the audiences feel pleasantly surprised to learn that a woman made the film they enjoyed, such as blockbusters like Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, Frozen II, Hustlers, Little Women, among others. This was another push to hire more female directors: overall the audience’s response is indifferent towards whether the director is a man or a woman.
Yes, if there is a change of a director in a big movie like Avengers or the Justice League, for example, there might be a different response. People may go to watch these movies with lower expectations because women working as directors have not yet become mainstream.
But female directors are performing at par with men and they have been doing so all along. It is only now that they are getting the long-due appreciation and acknowledgment.
As Good or Better
Similar to the Celluloid Ceiling Reporting, another report has been published in this regard, the Annenberg report. Although the findings related to women making better inroads to sit on the director’s chair is increasing, this report also analyzed the Metacritic score.
Metacritic is an aggregator site that ranks movies on the basis of user reviews and expert opinion. This report found that the critical reception of male and female-led films was identical. Having said that, the films directed by women were more critically appraised. This comes despite the fact that from 2007 to 2019, out of the 1300 films directed, only 1% were directed by women.
So, it can be said that when given a chance, women not only deliver the required performance in directing as men, but sometimes may even surpass them. In a poll taken in 2019, the three most anticipated women-directed films were Wonder Woman 1984 (Patty Jenkins), Black Widow (Cate Shortland), and Birds of Prey (Cathy Yan). As of this writing, only two of these three films have been released, with Wonder Woman 1984 grossing more than $1 billion worldwide.
The Trend Is Rising
Dr. Lauzen says that the number of women in film jobs has been rising for the last two years, a long-awaited deviation in the historical pattern. At the same time, she also says that women are still not represented adequately in 80% of the top films. She is stunned to see this imbalance but has high hopes of observing more similar changes in the industry.
The future of women-directed films is bright and something that we all want to see in the future too. One area where we do need to work is giving women enough representation or the opportunity to receive as many awards and recognition as men.
The Annenberg report found that in the last 13 years, 273 women-directed films were made, out of which 14 were nominated for different awards. This makes only 5.1% of the films. On top of this, only one woman has won the Oscar for directing, Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker, back in 2010.
The Role of Production Houses in Driving Change
The USC Annenberg, after observing these stark anomalies and gender gaps, called for an initiative to act as a wake-up call for the major production houses to take on more female directors as the leaders of their feature films. To promote this initiative, Universal Studios took the first step and became the first major movie house to commit to the 4% challenge.
Universal Pictures gave the reins of directing five major films to women as well as promising to hire at least one female director to work on a film in the next 18 months. Big houses like Universal Studios can become the leading players to inspire such movements and reverse the trends.
The same behavior is expected from other similar production houses like Paramount, but to no gain as yet. Paramount Pictures had only three female directors from 2007 to 2019.
Female Directing Outside Hollywood
The scenario in the Bollywood industry is similar to what we observed in Hollywood. Here too, we have not seen women taking the lead and directing a mainstream film coming from the mammoth production houses.
In India, the trend is a little different. Either the big actors have their own production houses and direct their films, or the directors head their own production and produce and direct their films.
Similarly, if a woman is the head of a production house, she is most likely to take the director’s chair. But the waves of change in Hollywood have been observed in India though trends are changing at a slower pace.
There is a very sexist bias in the Bollywood industry where male leads and other male-dominated film teams are not very enthusiastic to work under a woman. Although there are some people who are mature and professional enough to welcome the change.
Growth and Opportunities
An activist for gender equality in Hollywood, Melissa Silverstein, has observed that the Hollywood film industry is so skewed towards men that any type of forward motion is substantial. If a higher representation in any key role is given to anyone other than a white male, it is considered to be a substantial step in the forward direction.
One way these steps are being taken is seen as a trend that is commonly observed when a female director is in charge. When a woman is directing, the teams have a much higher percentage of women in roles working alongside, confirming the old adage “opportunity begets opportunity.”
Women directors use their positions to hire, work alongside, and elevate, the careers of other women, and make space for them to make a splash in the industry as well.
The number of female directors is rising, and the support for female-directed films by audiences is reflected in the blockbuster success and critical acclaim of their films.
However, there is still a long way to go for women directors to get the opportunities and the recognition they deserve in the Hollywood film industry, and in film around the world.