N.B. This is a raw, unedited and extended version of an essay originally published in Another Gaze.
The main point of contention in the much-deliberated issue of gender representation across the cinematic landscape isn’t the existence of the woman director. Certainly, they constitute a paltry percentage of the filmmaking enterprise – in 2016, just 7% of the top 250 films were directed by a woman – (I take umbrage with ‘top’ and the fact that our economic measurement of a film’s success is a gendered and patriarchal system, not designed to serve the female population. More on which later) – nevertheless, they are there. Behold: Varda and DuVernay, Coppola and Campion, Reichardt and Ramsay, Scherfig and Shelton, Holland and Hansen-Løve. (I’ve excluded their first names à la Hitchcock, Spielberg and Scorsese, with the same ritualistic reverence we use to refer to male directors).
The central issue is that their visibility and ascendancy continues to be hampered by outmoded systems of thought surrounding the capabilities of women directors and the commercial viability of the films they create. This is most apparent when said woman director is cultivating her second film: the time between her debut and sophomore films is recurrently longer, and one assumes more onerous, than that of her male directing counterparts.
When looking at the dramatic feature programming of recent Sundance Film Festivals, it becomes clear that this is down to more than just coincidence. It’s an insidious bias that threatens to derail female filmmakers that have already had to fight hard enough to have their voices heard. A nerve-centre for new talent, Sundance is continually above the industry standard when it comes to programming and premiering the work of women directors. In reference to the 2018 edition of the festival, a recent blog post of theirs reported
‘Of the 122 feature films premiering at Sundance, 37% are directed by women, markedly ahead of the mainstream industry.’
Notably, this figure is still below gender parity. Despite its progressive ethos, Sundance is indicative of a wider industry trend that requires women directors to prove themselves innumerably before gaining the same level of trust and opportunities bestowed upon their male peers. Women consistently have to fight harder to have their second feature made, even following an initial success. Men are less likely to suffer this fate.
Colin Trevorrow, whose debut feature Safety Not Guaranteed premiered at Sundance in 2012, went on to direct the $1.67 billion grossing Jurassic World a mere three years later, and Marc Webb, who premiered 500 Days of Summer at the 2009 Sundance Festival and three years later was helming the $758 million grossing The Amazing Spider-Man, are the poster boys for this proclivity. This rarely happens to women. The closest comparison is to Patty Jenkins whose record-breaking Wonder Woman took the world by storm last year.But her feature debut was in 2003, nearly a decade and a half earlier, with Monster. In fact, last year The Hollywood Reporter published a statistic, as discovered by USC Annenberg’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative, that 80% of women directors made just 1 film in 10 years.
Spotlighting two directors who experienced enormous acclaim at this year’s Sundance; Sara Colangelo with The Kindergarten Teacher and Desiree Akhavan with The Miseducation of Cameron Post, it becomes startlingly transparent how deep-seated and many-tentacled our bias towards women is.
Little Accidents tells the story of a coal mining town and the secrets it harbours. Written and directed by Sara Colangelo (another trend: women directors are far more likely to have penned the material they direct in what is perhaps a circumnavigation of sparser employment opportunities), this sombre, slow-burning drama (shot by recent Oscar nominee Rachel Morrison) opened at Sundance 2014 to hype galore. Coverage in Vanity Fair, The New York Times, Variety, IndieWire, Paste Magazine and The Hollywood Reporter followed, with the latter even predicting that her “compelling debut bodes very well for Colangelo”. Yet, a second feature did not materialise. Another filmmaker that had their directorial debut premier at Sundance in 2014 was Damian Chazelle, who name is undoubtedly more familiar. After Whiplash, he near-conquered the Oscars with La La Land, where he scooped Best Director, though memorably not Best Picture, and is currently filming a biopic about Neil Armstrong. One could surmise that Chazelle is more talented and thus more deserving of the opportunities he’s been given. But this isn’t a fluke: it’s an archetype.
In the 2014 US Dramatic Competition program, there were twelve male directors to four women directors. Of the women directors who debuted films, Maya Forbes with Infinitely Polar Bear, Mona Fastvold with The Sleepwalker, and Kate Barker-Froyland with Song One, only Forbes has gone on to direct her second feature, a little-known comedy called The Polka King. But Jeff Baena, who debuted Life After Beth, has since gone on to direct Joshy and The Little Hours, whilst Joe Swanberg, whose Happy Christmas was his follow-up to the mumblecore sensation Drinking Buddies, has gone on to direct Digging For Fire, Win It All and the Netflix series Easy. And of course, I’ve mentioned what happened to Damian Chazelle.
The New York Times published an article in 2017 exploring the aftermath of Sundance for its hotly-tipped directorial darlings, not all of whom can score headline-making distribution deals and Oscar buzz, and who instead face an employment wasteland. Sara Colangelo is one of the directors featured in the piece, in which the ratio of women to men is 2:1. Describing the struggle that is finding continuous work in the film industry, Colangelo reveals she has since directed corporate videos, and after Little Accidents picked up an Indie Spirit nomination for Best First Screenplay, landed “a few writer-for-hire jobs, polishing other people’s work”. Colangelo remarks that she saw many other Sundance alumni advance, the majority of whom were men.
It could be that the genre and terrain of Colangelo’s Little Accidents is what stalled the continuation of her career. At times relentlessly downbeat, though always tender, it tackles poverty, tragedy and hopelessness in Rust Belt America. The same kind of gothic, gloomy Americana that pulsated throughout Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone (who coincidentally returned to Sundance 2018 with Leave No Trace, after an eight-year hiatus) and doesn’t usually tend to draw crowds. However, when men tackle this topic it doesn’t appear to be a barrier to future employment. Scott Cooper, director of Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace, both solemn and sensitive in their depictions of small-town America, has gone on to direct Black Mass and the recently released Hostiles. David Lowery beguiled Sundance with his slow-burn outlaw drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints in 2013. By 2016 he was directing the multi-million dollar family film Pete’s Dragon, and in 2017 he returned with the critically-acclaimed A Ghost Story. He’s recently finished production on his next feature, starring the founder of Sundance himself, Robert Redford, and is attached to direct Disney’s live-action remake of Peter Pan. His quiet, gritty, backwater drama didn’t stymie his success at all.
Is it that women experience genre, as well as gender bias? In daring to enter a forbidden realm of bruised masculinity, dangerous machinery and economic austerity, Colangelo took on a traditionally male subject matter. In a 2016 British Film Institute study on ‘Genre and Classification’, box office revenues were broken down by genre to classify which are the most popular. Of the 16 defined genres, action, animation and sci-fi elicited the most revenue, and in 14 of the categories the top performing titles were directed by men. Typically films about superheroes, wars, riots, conflict, sporting legends, scientific exploration, historical events and biographical dramas are the terrain of male directors (making this year’s Mudbound and Detroit all the more special), whilst women are confined to more emotional, internal narratives. In making a gothic-crime-drama-thriller hybrid, Sara Colangelo deviated from the industry’s expectations of what a woman-directed film looks like, and thus made herself and her film hard to categorise.
Categorisation is also an issue that affected Desiree Akhavan, writer, director and star of 2015’s Appropriate Behaviour (which premiered the same year as Little Accidents in Sundance’s ‘Next’ strand), and the US Grand Jury Prize-winning The Miseducation of Cameron Post, at this year’s Sundance. Even though Appropriate Behaviour is a dramedy exploring female sexuality and identity, and therefore well within the sphere of suitable material for a woman director, the reception of Akhavan’s film can be seen as indicative of a tendency to situate women in relation to other women filmmakers, to compare and label them, instating something like a ‘one at a time’ rule. Appropriate Behaviour offers a candid portrait of sex and relationships and following Akhavan’s guest-role in Girls, the press repeatedly referred to her as “the next Lena Dunham”.
Speaking in conversation with BAFTA after the film’s release, Akhavan affirmed “No one ever looks at Alex Ross Perry and says ‘Oh look, another Noah Baumbach’.” Men are allowed to be unicorns, whereas women are seen as copycats, simulacra of women directors past. If her second feature were to bear a passing resemblance to something else currently in development by another woman director who is also making raunchy comedies, you can imagine the blowback. Yet there’s barely an eyelid bat when Bennett Miller and Douglas McGrath make Capote biopics within a year of each other. Last year an article in IndieWire proclaimed that Akhavan avoided “the second-film slump” by charting her own path and turning down the conventional, sub-par parodies that Hollywood were sending her. She admits,
“I could have made a second feature much earlier, it just would have sucked and I wouldn’t have made a third one…I was being sent scripts that were really big-budget, shittier versions of the film I had already made.”
The problem with this type of thinking is that it perpetuates the idea that Hollywood isn’t for women: that the only way to achieve cinematic success is to chisel a new path to it. This is not a requirement for male directors. It recalls the way we tell women to avert predatory glances and behaviours, without reproaching the patriarchy and its structures for producing this type of behaviour in the first place. It puts the onus on those with less power to force the hands of those with it.
Getting your first feature made is hard enough: it requires persistence, persuasiveness, and a production company willing to take you on. But women directors must repeatedly jump through the ‘first feature’ hurdle, whereas for male directors one directorial outing is enough to bolster the confidence and secure the funding of financiers and executive producers.
When production companies are looking for writers and directors to champion, they’re taking a chance on somebody that they must prove to financiers and investors to be worthwhile. The project must be quantified. And in order to do that, they look at a person’s credits and often, how much money their films recouped at the box office. Women, statistically more likely to direct lower budget films, are immediately disadvantaged by this fiscally-focused operation. Consequently, women directors are suggested for fewer projects. When they come to make their films the same pattern is repeated in the securing of distribution: once again a team of buyers and marketers assess whether the film will make them any money. A research study published by the Sundance Institute in 2015 outlined that movies with a woman director (70.2%) were more likely than movies with a male director (56.9%) to be distributed by Independent companies with fewer financial resources and lower industry clout. Conversely, male-directed films (43.1%) were more likely than woman-directed films (29.8%) to receive distribution from a Studio Specialty/Mini Major company. These latter companies have deeper pockets and greater reach. And so the vicious circle of invisibility continues.
This point is made illustratively and defiantly by Brit Marling, herself a Sundance alumni, in an essay for The Atlantic on ‘Weinstein and the Economics of Consent’. It comes down to this: “Men hold most of the world’s wealth” and that results in women seeking approval and finance from predominantly male gatekeepers who inherently believe woman-directed pictures don’t make money and are therefore a gamble, a risk, a no-go.
Sara Colangelo’s The Kindergarten Teacher has no less than 47 people credited as executive, associate or co-producers, demonstrative of the technical and financial Tetris required for this project to come together. And more often than not, woman-directed projects are born of women producers, who make it their life’s work to advocate and spotlight underrepresented voices. Celine Rattray who is one of the producers of The Kindergarten Teacher, has also produced Maggie Betts’ Novitiate, Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are Alright, and executive produced Andrea Arnold’s American Honey. And whilst there are more women producers than directors working today, (of the top 100 grossing films of 2017 women represented 8% of directors and 24% of producers), the percentage is still significantly below equivalence. If directors are relying on their support and sanction for employment, the trickle-down effect is clear.
Stephen Follows published a comprehensive report of gender inequality in the UK film industry in 2016, and concluded that gender imbalance is primarily due to an unconscious bias. There’s a detrimental expectation that woman-directed films will underperform, both in terms of popularity and profitability. Oscar-winning actress Anne Hathaway recently admitted her own unconscious bias against director Lone Scherfig on the set of One Day. In Vanity Fair she confessed:
“I am to this day scared that the reason I didn’t trust her the way I trust other directors is because she’s a woman….I’m so scared that I treated her with internalized misogyny…or I was resisting her on some level.”
It’s not just Anne. As a culture with a critical eye, we seem to focus on a woman’s shortcomings and consider them definitive, in a way that we don’t when it comes to assessing a man’s work. Alice Lowe, the director/writer/actress behind last year’s Prevenge, hypothesised in a conversation with Another Gaze, that “people are waiting for women directors to slip up. Whereas when a male director makes a dud it’s like, ‘Oh well, I’m really excited about what he’s going to do next!’” Society has conditioned us to believe that women do not belong behind the camera and the undoing of this harmful stereotype is still in its embryonic stages.
The pressure on women directors is intense and I am just as guilty of harbouring this double-standard. Upon hearing the results of the Sundance awards, I felt relieved. Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post won the US Grand Jury Prize, whilst Sara Colangelo took home the Directing Award. These women had prevailed! They had proved themselves once more! It was a glimmer of hope, a signal that their careers might stretch far beyond a second feature. Perhaps even a third or fourth or fifth! Men are allowed to be mediocre, but in order to succeed women have to be consistently brilliant. And because of this ludicrous expectation, whenever a woman’s debut feature doesn’t top every best film list, or triumph in the ratings, or get nominated for Best Director at the Oscars (à la Greta Gerwig – although one is wholly deserved), the clamour and endorsement around her subsides. We think very little of the fact that we might not hear from her again for another five years, and that something about that inequity isn’t deeply, deeply wrong.
Remakes are popular subjects for filmmaking because there is a precedent for their success. Women filmmakers are still in the process of creating their precedents. Historically and economically they are at a disadvantage, and a risk-averse industry doesn’t tend to put their eggs in a basket woven out of new or ‘untested’ material. And then, even when they have been tested, their success is deemed a fluke, unlikely to be repeated, unable to be counted upon. Ultimately, women directors need representation, legitimacy and capitalisation. The longer the industry lauds their debuts without creating a structure or framework that sustains their employment, the longer it will continue to fail at redressing the gender imbalance. Creating new conventions that make women filmmakers a fixed part of the industry, not anomalies, tokens, or precariously mounted emblems of a change to come, is the key to establishing a cinema of equality.