Knocking on the Celluloid Ceiling

With the government investigating a dearth of female filmmakers, the Hollywood gender gap is getting national attention. Is there hope for real change?

 

They’re calling it the boys-in-baseball-caps phenomenon. In recent years, several young men have vaulted from directing a single independent feature to helming blockbusters. This trajectory is both meteoric and gender-biased: It’s increasingly common for men and unprecedented for women. That’s created an outcry, put Hollywood in the spotlight, and motivated women in the business to speak out — several of them graduates of Concord Academy.

Percent of women working on top 250 films, by roleThe evidence of discrimination is more than anecdotal. A raft of research documenting underrepresentation of women in the film industry has prompted the media to chronicle female filmmakers’ fight for equal opportunities. Women constituted just 9 percent of all directors of the top-grossing 250 U.S. films of 2015, according to the annual Celluloid Ceiling report out of San Diego State University. That percentage hasn’t improved since 1998 — the year Saving Private Ryan topped the box office and Netflix started shipping DVDs to mailboxes. Last spring, the ACLU filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that instigated a government investigation into hiring practices. It could be the first step toward a class-action lawsuit.

There’s been a sudden scramble to hire female filmmakers, amid other rumblings of change. In January, in response to criticism of the Oscars, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences restructured its voting requirements with a goal of doubling minority and female membership by 2020. It’s unclear whether the gamble on identity politics will result in more diverse awards ceremonies — recognition depends on enough women and minorities getting into the pipeline. And with many eyes on directors, it’s been easy to overlook bias that affects women in other roles, inside and outside the studio system. Now women from several sectors are speaking up with a hope of joining their voices and having their work valued as highly as that of their male peers.


MEDIA REPRESENTATION

Media representation of women still presents a host of challenges, and appearance-focused criticism of actresses is perhaps harsher than it’s ever been. “We have to get past this narrative, particularly in Hollywood, that if women aren’t perfect creatures, they’re unhireable, or worse, bad people,” Caitlin FitzGerald ’02 says.

  • 30.2%
    of 30,853 speaking characters in the 700 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2014 were female.
  • 21%
    of the 100 top films of 2014 featured a female lead.
  • 0
    female actors over 45 years old performed a lead role the the top 100 films of 2014.
  • <25%
    of all speaking characters in the top animated films of 2014 were female.
Source: “Inequality in 700 Popular Films,” Media,Diversity, & Social Change Initiative, USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

 

Knocking on the Celluloid Ceiling 1

 

Behind the Lens

 

Rachel Morrison ’96 can’t wait for the day when she’s judged solely on her merits as a cinematographer — not as a female cinematographer. Although the director of photography (DP) renowned for Fruitvale Station and Dope once sought to steer conversations away from gender, the recent push for female directors made her realize that denying the problem wasn’t helping. “My experience as a cinematographer is that it hasn’t changed at all,” she says. “If anything, I’ve been given more opportunities to direct, which is not even something I set out to do. But nobody is opening the doors for me to shoot any more than they were five years ago.”

Rachel Morrison '96 filming 'Fruitvale Station'As underrepresented as female directors are, female cinematographers are rarer still: 94 percent of 2015’s top-grossing 250 films were shot by men, according to the Celluloid Ceiling report, down slightly from 98 percent in 2006. For Morrison, it was in trying to move from successful independent films to larger studio movies that she registered something amiss. Although Fruitvale Station won both audience and jury awards at the Sundance Film Festival, three years later Morrison has yet to shoot a major studio picture. Most other DPs at her level of success get a call within a year or two. “For women in this industry, we have to prove ourselves every step of the way,” Morrison says, outlining incremental steps to bigger-budget movies that her male peers don’t seem to have to take. While she notes that her gender may actually help her stand out in hiring for smaller movies, it feels like a liability for larger films.

Morrison is confident, though, that it’s simply a matter of time: “To me, it’s never been that women can’t get there. It may just take twice as long to reach the same level.” Her concern right now is that if she and her fellow female cinematographers end up directing because studios are “trying to plug a hole with DPs, then there won’t be any of us left.” She takes it as her duty to future female cinematographers to not desert the camera entirely.

Filmmaker Liz Goldwyn '94Even women from film families have to work hard to counter gendered expectations. “Hollywood is a boys’ club,” filmmaker and writer Liz Goldwyn ’94 says. The granddaughter of movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn recalls that when she was cutting her first film, Pretty Things, about 20th-century burlesque queens, she was the first woman director on the Paramount lot in nine years — and she overheard some choice words about women in power. “You know that you’re going to run the risk of them saying, ‘We don’t want to work with her, she’s too difficult,’” she says. “Whereas if it’s a man, they would not say that. They would just say, ‘He’s fighting for what’s his.”

Goldwyn takes the call for change personally. “I have to work that much harder to be taken with the same level of consideration and respect as my male peers,” she says. “The stories that I make are about strong women, complicated women, problematic women. Not everyone is going to like that, but I’ll keep on because that’s what
I’m drawn to.”

Women filmmakers are comparatively better represented outside the studio system, but even in the independent world there’s a narrative/documentary divide. In 2014 and 2015, women made 29 percent of documentaries and only 18 percent of narrative features that screened at more than 20 high-profile U.S. film festivals, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film — and narrative films by men get better distribution.

Emily Abt ’93 has a foot on each side of the indie world, with three documentaries and one narrative film under her belt. Now she’s gearing up to shoot her second narrative feature, Audrey’s Run, about an African American woman who runs for mayor of Boston. After her first narrative film, Toe to Toe, hit Sundance and Variety magazine named her one of the “top 10 directors to watch,” she met with several studio executives to pitch them her next project. She was visibly pregnant, and nothing came through. “I wasn’t going to wait to get hired,” she says. “I was going to keep making films.” So she directed another documentary (Daddy Don’t Go) while her children were still young. “Documentary work tends to be more flexible than narrative since the shoots take place over a longer period of time,” she says. “There are ways to work no matter what, to not let ourselves be excluded.”

A founding member of a support network in New York called Film Fatales, Abt calls herself “one of many women filmmakers pushing hard at the gates.” She has raised over $1.5 million for her own projects and credits her involvement in every aspect of filmmaking, from writing to shooting, directing, editing, and producing. “Women filmmakers who have a strong technical background — directors who are also editors, or who also shoot — are doing better than those who don’t,” she says. “It’s not in our interests as women to throw our hands up and say we don’t understand the technical aspects of filmmaking.”

Knocking on the Celluloid Ceiling 4

“I wasn’t going to wait to get hired. I was going to keep making films no matter what.”
–Emily Abt ’93

 

In the documentary world, a relative playground for women filmmakers, men still tend to be the box-office heavy hitters, while women’s films are better represented on PBS. That division may be driven as much by the tastes of theater audiences as the system that determines distribution. Certainly financing for documentaries seems to be on more even footing, with support available from organizations such as the Sundance Documentary Fund and the Ford Foundation. Still, Catherine Saalfield Gund ’83 concedes that there are investors she doesn’t even think to approach “that boy doc filmmakers would just dial right up.” The documentary filmmaker and producer has made her name by focusing on social justice issues; she is currently at work on films about the ranchera singer Chavela Vargas, black organizing in the wake of police killings in Cleveland, and 100-year-old but newly discovered interracial silent moviemaking.

Knocking on the Celluloid Ceiling 5

“They can’t keep saying they don’t see gender.”
–Catherine Saalfield Gund ’83
Gund doesn’t think much of talk about a dearth of women directors. “There are many and they’re brilliant, and it’s silly for people to say that they can’t find one,” she says. At her production company, Aubin Pictures, the producers and directors she works with are all women. Surrounding herself with a hub of passionate colleagues, she sees Hollywood operating largely in a parallel universe. “They can’t keep saying they don’t see gender,” she says. “If you have no women on your crew — none? — then you need to make a big change. As a simple rule, folks could be aiming for 50 percent women. And if your big complaint is that you can’t find any women, then start a mentorship program or internship program and step outside the walls of your old boys’ network.”
 

Filmmaker Sally Rubin '95
 

 

Sally Rubin ’95 also makes films about underdogs — and has from her very first documentary, about LGBT life at CA. Keenly attuned to media representation, she’s at work on a documentary called The Hollywood Hillbilly, about how rural people are portrayed on screen. In addition to documentary filmmaking and editing, she now codirects the documentary BFA and MFA programs at Chapman University in Orange, Calif. She sees that male students are more confident picking up cameras, while females tend to default to more administrative roles, like producing. “I don’t think men are naturally more apt with cameras or editing systems, but I do think that they’re encouraged to approach technology with more of an open mind and with more confidence from an earlier age,” she says. In her classroom, she often insists that women shoot and men produce, and is deliberate in how she pairs students. Rubin has seen opportunities for women improve — if slowly. “Progress starts with conversations and naming injustices,” she says, “and that’s exactly what’s happening.”

“I completely credit CA with giving people like me — teenage girls especially — a voice. CA does nothing if not encourage people to find their passion, to know that they have a voice in the world that can make a difference. I learned that at 14 years old, and I’ve never forgotten it since.”
–Sally Rubin ’95

 


THE BRAVE NEW WORLD OF ONLINE VIDEO   BuzzFeed filmmaker Daysha Edewi' 10

As a producer at BuzzFeed, Daysha Edewi ’10 is responsible for shooting, lighting, directing, editing — and most often starring in — her own videos, and she’s had the satisfaction of seeing one of them hit over 37 million views within a week. She does it all for only $300 per video. The low budget has taught her to be resourceful and allows for endless iteration and testing. Because BuzzFeed gives creative control to its producers, she is free to take on what really matters to her, including difficult topics such as race and body image. “One of my biggest  goals as a creator is making videos that people will play in a classroom,” Edewi says. “The idea of creating  something that a CA teacher could use to articulate something is a life goal for me.”


 

What’s Driving the Numbers?

 

Hollywood’s business pressures create an exceptionally challenging environment for women. International financing and the need to appeal to foreign audiences have contributed to a focus on action and comic franchises to the detriment of middle-budget dramatic features. Audiences now mostly go to theaters for spectacle. Men still dominate executive positions, but women executives face similar pressures. “Hollywood is fear-driven,” says Abt. “With every decision a development executive makes, their job is on the line. It’s almost inevitable that they feel forced to make the safe call, and unfortunately that safe decision often comes in the form of a man.” She praises actress Natalie Portman, who owns her own production company and recently insisted on a female director for a biopic about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “That kind of move is very powerful, and I think the more that happens, the more you’ll see a real shift in who gets picked to helm these projects.”

Part of the equation is who decides what stories get told. Several women point to an issue much larger than the film industry — a sort of gendered empathy gap. “For whatever reason, women can empathize with the male experience, but not all men can empathize with a female protagonist,” Morrison says. She wonders how we can teach males — including her own toddler son — to do so. “I think that will help level the playing field more than anything in terms of front-of-the-camera talent,” she says. Rubin identified the same problem. “Girls grow up seeing male protagonists and male subjects, and females are often adjuncts, additives to their stories,” she says. “Our resulting experience is that we’re second-class citizens.” And everyone loses when men aren’t encouraged to put themselves in women’s shoes.

“Before 30, guys are allowed to be geniuses and women are not hireable. Then you have from 30 to 40 to prove yourself, and that happens to be the exact same window your biological clock has.”
–Rachel Morrison ’96
When it comes to casting, most filmmakers secure a male lead first. “There is a prevailing opinion that men spend more money on entertainment than women, especially in the 18-to-35 demographic, so more roles are written for men than for women,” says casting director Pamella Pearl ’86, who has worked on Argo, The Twilight Saga, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes and now casts for television. “With women it’s less about box office and more about, ‘Is she pretty enough? Is she young enough?’” It’s possible that casting might present more opportunities if looked at in a different light, as a Time story highlighting recent films with female leads originally written for men suggested. Pearl says that’s far from common, but a similar situation did arise recently when she was casting a TV pilot. “It was exciting and refreshing to have people think outside the box,” she says. “My hope is that it has become apparent that women can carry shows and bring in audience, and consequently more roles will be written for women.”

Perhaps the elephant in the room is the impact that starting a family has on women’s careers. Morrison was asked to shoot the movie Creed but had to decline the offer because her baby boy was due right in the middle of filming. Working on it would have been a career game-changer: The film grossed over $200 million worldwide. Age is a big factor for women, she says: “Before 30, guys are allowed to be geniuses and women are not hireable. Then you have from 30 to 40 to prove yourself, and that happens to be the exact same window your biological clock has.” To be close to their children, many women filmmakers pursue less lucrative positions, create in-home production companies, or accept only projects that don’t require travel. Others make hard choices. Abt’s second daughter was just 4 months old when she took a commercial job in Texas to fund her next documentary. By the time she returned, her daughter had weaned herself. That was hard, but Abt doesn’t regret taking the job. “I’ve been adamant about staying in the game, as a woman, as a mother,” she says. “My two daughters inspire me professionally. I want them to see me killing it. I want them to know what it looks like to see a woman who loves what she does and does it well.”

Catherine Gund '83 filming 'Amor Puro y Duro: Love Hard and Pure'

 

What We See On Screen

 

For actresses, bias comes in many forms. Didi Rea ’69, a talent manager, has followed the arcs of many on-screen careers. While several of her male clients are claiming bigger and bigger parts, roles for women are harder to find — and ultimately women are offered less than men. Rea represents, among others, Lupita Nyong’o, whose Oscar for best supporting actress in the 2013 film 12 Years a Slave, her first feature, remains a rarity. “For Lupita it was a perfect storm, with timing, with the zeitgeist,” Rea says. Still, after the Academy Awards that year, the majority of the scripts Rea was sent for Nyong’o were for roles as slaves or abused women. So actresses like her are now generating many of their own projects. Nyong’o and Rea have bought the rights to make a movie of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah.

Actress Caitlin FitzGerald '02Television and film actress Caitlin FitzGerald ’02 has also found good roles mostly lacking. “In the scripts, particularly for big movies, it’s 17 dudes and one female character — and she’s the wife, or the girlfriend, and usually not terribly dimensional,” she says. But television is pioneering a broader range for female parts. FitzGerald plays Libby on Showtime’s series Masters of Sex and feels fortunate to work on a show with complicated characters written by women. “I’m very grateful to be in the industry right now,” she says. “It feels like a watershed moment.” The tide may be turning in terms of how women are represented in films, too, but it’s too early to tell. According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, in the top-grossing 100 films of 2015, females constituted 22 percent of protagonists, a recent historical high. That’s up 10 percentage points from 2014, which was an exceptionally poor year for women’s roles.

FitzGerald belongs to a group, Women in Motion Pictures, that connects women in Los Angeles. “There’s this beautiful internal hiring that’s happening among women. We just need the opportunities,” she says, “and supporting each other in that endeavor is crucial.”

 


 

Archival producer Becca Bender '96WHERE WOMEN DOMINATE

Archival producer Becca Bender ’95 works in “a comically female-heavy” branch of the documentary field; nearly all jobs that involve researching and editing archival materials are held by women. “There’s very little glory in it,”  she says by way of explanation. In her niche of black documentary, she is attuned more to race than gender, and what her lived experience does and doesn’t bring to a project: “I try to be hyper-aware of who I hire for my team to be sure that I’m getting diverse perspectives — and that extends to interns.”

Dani Girdwood '11 is getting a start in filmmakingGETTING A START IN FILMMAKING

Dani Girdwood ’11 has benefited from the type of mentorship that many women have been calling for. Now assisting with indie films made by women, she is finding collaborative, inclusive filmmaking thrilling. “It’s a team sport,” she says. “I owe my confidence fully to the women who tucked me under their wings, who nurtured me and wanted to hear from me.”

 

 


 

The Promise of Change

 

Film producer Sarah Pillsbury '69

“The level of camaraderie between younger women feels really new.”
– Sarah Pillsbury ’69
What we see from the studies, and from women’s experiences, is that success is harder and harder to come by the further up the ladder women climb. The jump from independent to mainstream films is the most difficult to make. While it stands to reason that the Oscars ceremony, the most visible industry event beyond Hollywood, has been a focus of late, will the Academy’s restructuring pave the way for change? Producer Sarah Pillsbury ’69, a lifetime member (known for Desperately Seeking Susan and River’s Edge, she also won an Academy Award for the short film Board and Care) finds it unlikely. Under the new rules, filmmakers who haven’t made a movie in a decade will become inactive. “I think they assumed that this would affect older white men,” she says. “I’m concerned that it’s likely to affect a lot of women who haven’t worked recently because they’re up against ageism and sexism.” Pillsbury does, however, point to a promising trend: “The level of camaraderie between younger women feels really new.” For her, hope lies in how young women themselves are changing and grappling with these issues — and how young men are, too. “They’ve always seen a world where their mothers work,” she says. “They’ve seen their mothers be powerful and respected. Finally it’s cool for women to be feminists, and a lot of young men would say that they’re feminists, too.”

For Morrison, the problem of recognition starts further back than choosing performances or movies worthy of Oscars. “Certainly the reason there’s never been a female cinematographer nominated for an Oscar isn’t because somebody deprived us of the nomination,” she says. “There are so few of us, and even fewer shooting bigger-budget projects — there just haven’t been any to choose from.” She thinks change has to start with the hiring process.
 

“Showing that female-led, female-directed, female-written scripts can make money is where Hollywood’s going to shift.”
–Caitlin FitzGerald ’02

 

Abt feels change is inevitable given the quality of the work that women filmmakers are producing. She hopes to see incentives for production companies and studios willing to take the leap of faith and hire more women. For Rubin, who points to last year’s box-office smash Mad Max: Fury Road, with Charlize Theron, financial success is what will make the difference. FitzGerald agrees. “Showing that female-led, female-directed, female-written scripts can make money is where Hollywood’s going to shift,” she says.

Gender bias affects all of society, but the imbalance in Hollywood is particularly alarming — not only for the sake of women in the entertainment industry, but also because how we see our lives reflected on-screen goes a long way toward defining our identities, relationships, and ambitions. If you can’t see it, the adage goes, you can’t be it. On the flip side, culture can drive substantive social change. Although in 2013 and 2014, women accounted for 14 percent of directors of episodic television, according to the Directors Guild of America, powerhouse creators such as Jill Soloway (Transparent) and Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal) are proving that collaborative working styles and storylines with meaty roles for women can capture major audiences. That trend may yet push films in a different direction.

Awareness and intentionality in hiring could also go a long way toward evening the numbers. It’s clear that both top-down and bottom-up approaches are needed. If we want to see a truly more diverse approach to storytelling, it matters who gets to greenlight films, just as it matters who gets the coffee and has a chance to make contacts and move up the ladder to write, shoot, act, edit, direct, and produce — to prove their determination to circumvent obstacles and share their visions with the world.

 


 

IS TV CHANGING THE INDUSTRY?

With original shows developed by Netflix and Amazon snapping up traditional industry awards and Nielsen now tracking them for ratings, Internet TV has the potential to disrupt the system. And in episodic television as a whole, women are starting to play more formidable roles.

“The way that women are written is so much more dimensional and compelling, in television. Certainly there are beautiful, small independent films being made with great roles for women, but you can’t make a living as an actress doing them. I always say I have a TV show to support my indie habit.”

–Caitlin FitzGerald ’02

“TV is becoming the new ground for substantive lead roles for women. So many acclaimed directors and writers are working in television right now because they’re being given a lot of money and creative freedom. Actresses from all mediums are coming to television because these incredible roles are being written.”

–Pamella Pearl ’86

“Television is just now starting to present more of a real picture and open people’s minds to the idea that women aren’t dead once they’ve passed reproductive age.”

–Didi Rea ’69

 


MORE FROM Alumnae/i