When Will Women Lead Storytelling in Hollywood?

It shouldn’t be so hard for women filmmakers to make their next project. Period.


“If I may be so honored, to have all the female nominees in every category stand with me tonight,” urged Frances McDormand during her powerful rally cry of an acceptance speech when she won for Best Actress on March 4.

Like millions of viewers watching the live telecast, I was deeply impacted by the humility shown by the women who rose; by women at the pinnacle of their careers still needing to reclaim basic respect, standing in solidarity in glittery gowns.

“Look around, ladies and gentleman,” McDormand instructed us. “Because we all have stories to tell and projects we need to have financed. Don’t talk to us about it at the parties tonight. Invite us into your office in a couple days — or you can come to ours, whichever suits you best — and we’ll tell you all about them.”

McDormand ended her speech with two words that ignited a Google search frenzy: inclusion rider. A contractual stipulation in which actors and actresses can demand that as much of 50% of the onscreen talent and off-screen crew will be comprised of women and people of color. So far, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Paul Feig and others have publicly stated that their future projects will contractually impose inclusion riders.

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But let’s go back to Oscar night — to before McDormand’s moment. To the moment in which Jimmy Kimmel talked about the box-office success of the Patti Jenkins-directed Wonder Woman and cited the following statistic:

Only 11% of movies are directed by women.

As dismaying as that figure is, it’s actually inflated. A study released in January, called the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, surveyed more than 1,000 films from 2007 to 2017, and there were 43 female directors. That’s 4.2% of films directed by women.

In an era of hashtag movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp, one might think that things are changing for the better. Not so much. TheWrap.com recently reported that of all studio pictures to be released in 2018, only 3.3% were made by women — including zero female directors for Paramount, Sony and Warner Brothers.

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Why does this gender gap go on and on? How did women let men control the voice in cinema for so long?

In early Hollywood, women did their share of writing and directing for the big screen. (Fun fact: they often took on the role of editors because films needed to be cut and stitched with precision, and women knew how to sew.) Lois Weber, Frances Marion, Ida Lupino, Marion Farifax, Dorothy Arzner, Marion E. Wong, Fatma Begum, Germaine Dulac, Alice Guy-Blaché: these directors were some of filmdom’s pioneering women, all telling complex diverse stories, all thriving in the industry. Then the studio system took over and created formulaic products focused on turning profits. The irony? Today, women control 60% of personal wealth and 68% of spending in the US entertainment marketplace — movies, streaming, etc. In this sense, women are already in power. They fund an industry in which they have very little voice.

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Cathy Schulman, an Oscar-winning producer and president of the nonprofit Women in Film, is at the forefront of the neo-feminist movement sweeping the film industry. She recently announced that ReFrame — a plan of action to cultivate gender parity — was gathering industry support from Netflix, Lionsgate, Showtime, TNT/TBS, Annapurna as well as the Producer’s Guild of America (PGA) and SAG-AFTRA. Initiated by Women In Film in tandem with Sundance and 50 “industry ambassadors,” ReFrame could become a badge of honor, a way to identify film and TV shows that meet a certain standard of female participation.

Schulman has stated that parity in the business has been whispered about for years, but now, starting with the Weinstein scandal and everything that has followed it, the voices of women can and will be heard. Women will finally not just aspire to but achieve systemic change in the industry.

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Black Panther, now topping $1B in global box office on a $200M budget, had a 31-year old director, Ryan Coogler. He was given a chance; he’s a man. How many more — and more experienced — female directors have never been entrusted with that kind of big-budget project? Ava Duvernay, Kathryn Bigelow, Catherine Hardwicke, Penny Marshall, Sophia Coppola, Nancy Meyers, Barbara Streisand, Agnès Varda, even the late Nora Ephron, to name nine of them. Imagine a world in which a major motion picture studio entrusts a young woman director with a $200M budget to realize her vision of a futuristic adventure on the silver screen. Women do manage money, lead families and communities, prioritize, multitask, and demonstrate empathy, traits that are essential to any directorial enterprise.

Coogler was discovered in 2013 at the Sundance Film Festival. That year, of the 16 films in competition, eight were directed by women, including Jill Soloway, who won the coveted directing award for Afternoon Delight. Still, the bias was and remains evident: In the three years following the 2013 festival, Lynn Shelton was the only woman to direct another picture, versus four of the male directors. And only male directors from this talented group were entrusted with big-budget flicks like Pete’s Dragon, King: Skull Island and Creed, which led to Black Panther.

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It shouldn’t be so hard for women filmmakers to make their next project. Period.

So which female discovery will make a brilliant studio picture with radical storytelling? This year at Sundance, Coralie Fargeat premiered Revenge, a lady-Terminator romp that submerged the audience with humor, suspense and special effects. It told the story of Jen, on a romantic weekend with her married boyfriend and how everything goes wrong when his colleagues unexpectedly show up. Following is a visceral and thrilling hunt across the desert, where the heroine embarks on a ride towards empowerment.

The world is in desperate need of a female’s point of view. Fargeat and other masterful women directors should work all the time. Their projects should be funded because diverse stories are important, reflecting our cultural latitude — and they can turn a profit, too.

I would love to know which films directed by a woman have impacted your life.