Why Is Hollywood Still Shortchanging Women Directors?

Connie Nielsen (left) as Queen Hippolyta and director Patty Jenkins on the set of Wonder Woman (Clay Enos/Warner Bros. Entertainment)

This story was originally published on January 30, 2019.

It seemed like a brand new day in Hollywood when previously untouchable men like Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Les Moonves, and Louis C.K., were publicly condemned for allegedly assaulting and abusing women, and when terms like “inclusion rider” were spoken at the Academy Awards. Some men in Hollywood, including Michael B. Jordan and his producing partners at Warner Media, publicly pledged to adopt inclusion riders as part of their diversity policies. Hollywood’s stated commitment to diversity both in front of and behind the scenes was heralded as a change that would benefit women who have historically been shut out of executive roles (such as directing and producing) and have been asked more about their clothes than their work. It signaled that women were finally being not just listened to, but heard. The future looked female, and it was beautiful.

But one year later, there’s little sign of this promised sea change. If anything, things have worsened for women directors: The Center for the Study of Women in Film and Television’s 2018 “Celluloid Ceiling” report found that only 8 percent of the top 100 films were directed by women, a 3 percent drop from 2017. And, as we move through awards season, it seems impossible that the women directors behind critically acclaimed films— including You Were Never Really Here (Lynn Ramsay), Leave No Trace (Debra Granik), Private Life (Tamara Jenkins), Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marielle Heller), and The Rider (Chloé Zhao)—have been overlooked. But indeed, neither the Golden Globes nor the Academy Awards nominated a single woman in their Best Director categories. The Director’s Guild of America (DGA), which represents the “interests of film and television directors in the United States motion picture industry and abroad,” also shut women out from the DGA Awards for Feature Film and First-Time Feature Film categories.

It’s disheartening, especially after #TimesUp instituted its mission of working to eradicate sexual assault, harassment and bullying, achieving gender parity in Hollywood, and creating safer workspaces for women and people of color. Maybe some executives heard the messages and dismissed them. Perhaps they’ve just been slow to consider their role in the systemic bias has limited opportunities for others. Either way, Hollywood’s resistance to change isn’t new. 

Historically, female directors have been overlooked for jobs even after they’ve directed successful films. Charlize Theron won a Best Actress Oscar for starring in Patty Jenkins’s first movie, 2003’s Monster, but it was 14 years until Jenkins directed her second feature, 2017’s Wonder Woman. Despite the film’s critical and box-office success, Jenkins went unrecognized by the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, and the DGA. Debra Granik’s 2010 Oscar-nominated Winter’s Bone put Jennifer Lawrence on the map, but Granik herself didn’t direct another feature until 2018. Even Barbra Streisand, the only woman to win a Best Director Golden Globe (for 1984’s Yentl), couldn’t get her passion project—a screen adaptation of Larry Kramer’s AIDS chronicle The Normal Heart—funded, despite trying for more than 25 years. Ryan Murphy directed the movie for HBO in 2014. Streisand checks every box for a studio (star power, accolades, and box-office draw), but ultimately, the movie industry’s resistance to making a movie about AIDS forced her to pass her project to a lesser known, less-experienced man.

Female directors also face much more pressure than male directors because one misstep can tank a woman’s career. It took 10 years for Karyn Kusama to direct another movie after her 2005 film Aeon Flux flopped at the box office. Contrast Kusama with Guy Ritchie, who was offered Sherlock Holmes, even after three consecutive flops (Swept Away, Revolver, and RockNRolla). Two of his recent films, The Man from U.N.C.L.E and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, also underperformed at the box office. Is he in the “movie jail” Kusuma and other female directors have been sent to? Nope: Walt Disney Studios handed him the reins to their live-action reboot of Aladdin; he’s been tapped by Miramax to direct Toff Guys; and it’s rumored that he’s going to direct a third Sherlock Holmes film. Totally equal, right?

Men are allowed to make mistakes, even if that “mistake” is sexual assault (*cough* BRYANSINGERISNOMINATEDFORBOHEMIANRHAPSODY *cough*) or sexual harassment (yes, Skydance Animation did put John Lasseter in charge). Women, especially women of color—like Gina Prince-Bythewood who now works under Lasseter—not only get scant room for mistakes, but are expected to excel both critically and at the box office to prove to Hollywood’s gatekeepers that they belong. Imposing unfair expectations while refusing to let women in the door creates a no-win system. And there won’t be real progress until more women are able to create and champion women-led stories with the same room to experiment—and fail—that men are granted.

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Some women are taking matters in their own hands: Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Hello Sunshine, is producing Big Little Lies’ much-anticipated second season, has optioned the rights to Celeste Ng’s bestselling 2017 novel Little Fires Everywhere, and is finally bringing Legally Blonde 3 to theaters. Kerry Washington’s production company, Simpson Street, is co-producing Little Fires Everywhere for Hulu and working on an adaptation of Brit Bennett’s 2016 novel The Mothers. Viola Davis’s JuVee Productions signed a first-look deal with Amazon Studios, and Eva Longoria, Charlize Theron, Margot Robbie, Drew Barrymore, Queen Latifah, and Natalie Portman are among the women who recognized that the only way to ensure their projects are made is to put their own resources into them.

Recently, Time’s Up Now, along with the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and actor Tessa Thompson, launched the female-director–focused  #4PercentChallenge, which derives its name from a 2017 study by the USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism that found that only 4 percent of the highest-grossing films of the past decade were directed by women. It literally challenges industry leaders, producers, and studios to commit to hiring one woman director in the next 18 months. Regina King accepted the challenge in her Golden Globes acceptance speech. Other actors have also agreed, and Universal Pictures is the first movie studio to accept the challenge.

The undeniable truth is that Hollywood executives have chosen to lose money for decades by neglecting the 50 percent of the population who buy more than 55 percent of all movie tickets, and by not backing stories directed or written by women. But the past year has revealed a clear-cut way of getting people to shell out money for movie tickets, premium-cable networks, and streaming services: Put women in front of the camera, and hire them to write and direct their own stories. The fate of the industry depends on it.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Karyn Kusama’s name. (2/12/2019, 11:24 a.m.)

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