The number of women directing feature films in Hollywood continues to yo-yo in the single digits, while independent projects may offer a more inviting avenue into the entertainment industry for females, according to two new studies released this week.
The success of directors such as Kathryn Bigelow (“Zero Dark Thirty”) and Sofia Coppola (“Lost in Translation”) might have fostered an impression that the “old boys club” of Hollywood has been breached and more women will soon be giving orders behind the scenes.
But women comprised only 9 percent of directors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films in 2012, according to a report this week from San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. That's up from five percent in 2011—but equals the number of female directors working in 2008, which is also the same as it was 15 years ago.
“Overall it is status quo, very little change,” Martha Lauzen, who conducted the study and is executive director of the center, told Backstage. “It is steady state.”
When other senior behind-the-camera positions are factored in, the numbers aren’t as stark. Women comprised 18 percent of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, and cinematographers working on the same group of 250 films in 2012, a one-percent increase from the previous year.
Still, one set of statistics stood out in the report: 38 percent of films employed zero or one woman in the roles considered, while 23 percent employed two women, 28 percent employed three to five women, and 10 percent employed six to nine women.
“Certainly there needs to be an awareness that women are underrepresented in the business,” said Lauzen. “After awareness there needs to be some acknowledgement that this is a problem. How many industries are this lopsided?”
Independent films, particularly documentaries, tend to have a lower barrier to entry for women. In other words, they’re less expensive to make and less dependent on the studio infrastructure.
According to a study released by the Sundance Institute and Women in Film Los Angeles this week, women comprised 29.8 percent of the more than 11,000 directors, writers, producers, cinematographers, and editors of films shown at the Sundance Film Festival in the last 10 years. Moreover, females directed 34.5 of the festivals’ documentaries, compared with 16.9 percent of its narrative features. Those numbers were comparable to a study Lauzen released this fall that looked at the employment figures across an array of independent film festival entrants.
For actors, it matters who is behind the camera because that heavily influences which performers get cast and what roles they play.
“If the vast majority of individuals working behind the scenes are male, then they are going to create male driven stories,” Lauzen said. “That's just the reality.
“We have documented that when you get more women working in positions of power behind the scenes, you see not only more female characters on screen but a different kind of female character that tends to be more powerful.”
Lauzen said there doesn't seem to be an overt bias in entertainment against female directors, who for the first time this year represent half of the films in competition at Sundance. But it is something that the industry needs to address.
“I don’t know why some government agency or group would not be looking into this and saying, ‘These numbers seem very out of whack. What’s going on here?’,” she said. “This is our culture. These messages matter.”