Where are the female directors?

There are women in the Senate, women heading studios and busloads of young women emerging from film school. So why are 96 percent of films directed by men?

Published August 27, 2002 8:00PM (EDT)

Towering over the corner of Highland and Melrose in Hollywood last March was a billboard featuring the "Anatomically Correct Oscar." Pallid and stocky rather than sleek and golden, he stood covering his crotch next to the tag line, "He's white and male, just like the guys who win!" A project by art-world activists Guerrilla Girls and Alice Locas, a recently formed, secretive group of female filmmakers, the billboard highlighted the fact that a woman has never won the Oscar for best directing. In fact, only two have ever been nominated -- Lina Wertmüller for "Seven Beauties" in 1976 and Jane Campion for "The Piano" in 1993.

After the breakthrough best actor and actress wins by Denzel Washington and Halle Berry at this year's Academy Awards, Hollywood reveled in self-congratulation for its ostensible progressiveness. Yet just as black filmmakers remain marginalized and decent black roles remain scarce, the situation for women making movies is grim. As stickers from another Guerrilla Girls campaign proclaimed, "The U.S. Senate is more progressive than Hollywood. Female Senators: 9%, Female directors: 4%." That's according to a study undertaken at San Diego State University, and it suggests the extent to which the dreams that radiate off theater screens and into our culture are still almost exclusively the dreams of men.

At a time when film schools are graduating almost equal numbers of men and women, why is the movie business still such a closed shop? Many women from every stratum of the directing world -- established Hollywood types and shoestring independents, celebrated art-house stars and creators of light teen comedies, film school deans and movie historians -- tell remarkably similar stories of deep-rooted prejudices, baseless myths and sexual power struggles that litter the path to the director's chair with soul-wearing obstacles. "It is absolutely consistently more difficult for women from the beginning to the end," says Debra Zimmerman, executive director of the nonprofit organization Women Make Movies.

And things might just be getting worse. According to a study by Martha M. Lauzen, a San Diego State professor who studies the role of women in film and TV, women directed 7 percent of the top-grossing 100 films released in 2000. (In a sample of the top 250 films, the percentage was a little higher, at 11 percent.) Last year, that already dismal number plummeted. "We're just putting together preliminary figures for films released in 2001. The percentage [of the top 100 films] has gone way down. It looks like 4 percent, which means it's below 1992 levels."

Adds Martha Coolidge, president of the Directors Guild of America and director of such movies as "Rambling Rose" and "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge," "I'm not seeing the hiring of women directors improving at all. It's a terrible testament to where the industry is going."

Contrary to expectations, things aren't much better in the indie world than in Hollywood. Using a sample of 250 films, Lauzen compared the top-grossing 50 films with the bottom-grossing 50, which tend to be indie films. "We've never found a significant difference in terms of women behind the scenes" in the bottom category, she says.

These numbers are important in understanding the problem because, as any male director will tell you, moviemaking is a brutal business for all involved. Mary Harron, director of "I Shot Andy Warhol" and "American Psycho," is married to director John Walsh, who has had a far more difficult time in the business than she has. "It's very difficult for women or men if what you're doing doesn't fit into industry standards of what people expect from a movie," she says.

Famed screenwriter and director Nora Ephron, whose movies include "Sleepless in Seattle" and "You've Got Mail," adds, "I always think every movie should begin with a logo that says, for example, 'Warner Bros. did everything in its power to keep from making this movie.'"

Nevertheless, Harron says of the situation for women directors, "It is not all OK. It really isn't. It's still much harder for women to get started." The reasons why are a complex mix of economics, sexism, the tastes of executives and even self-sabotage.

Often, the hurdles start with discouragement in film school. When Coolidge applied to New York University's film school more than 30 years ago, she says she was told that she couldn't be a director because she was a woman (though she was accepted anyway).

One would like to think things have improved a lot since then, but according to Christina Choy, chair of the graduate division of NYU's film school, the mostly male faculty there still discourages female students in unconscious ways -- largely because its members don't relate to their work.

"I remember one student who made a beautiful film," says Choy. It was a short about a woman eating lunch alone in a park and being harassed by a man. "The camera showed he was playing with his dick. The male directing teacher went nuts and said it was pornography. If it was vice versa and you saw a woman lying on a bed, having a sexual arousal, that's no longer pornography," she says.

In the hallways of San Diego State, says Lauzen, "I have heard male professors say to female students, 'Don't even think about directing or being a cinematographer. Get into producing.'"

Those who do stick it out in school face sexual tensions that keep them from penetrating the groups of funders and mentors that help young male filmmakers along. "We can't be in the boys club, and the boys club is how a lot of films get financed," says Tara Veneruso, who made the documentary "Janis Joplin Slept Here" and is now working on her first feature.

She explains, "Let's say you have a short at a film festival and it's doing well. Chances are high you'll be at a party and have an opportunity to pitch your idea over drinks. If your idea is good enough perhaps you'll get it financed." For women, though, chatting up an older man over drinks isn't construed as business -- it's seen as flirting. That, Veneruso says, is why women are "always on the outside" of the casual networks where much of the film business gets done.

Like many directors, she's quick to say that this isn't only men's fault. "A lot of time these guys have wives and girlfriends who don't like the idea of them talking to you. What happens in this whole conversation is that men think they're being blamed for excluding women, but I don't think it's as simple as that." Going out to dinner with an older financier simply isn't as straightforward for a woman as a man. "They have more reservations because of the implied nature of your conversation," she says.

Once women make contact with backers, received notions about the filmgoing audience make female-centered projects seem less lucrative. Over and over, directors say they've run up against the Hollywood assumption that girls and women aren't a sufficiently lucrative market, despite the overwhelming success of chick flicks such as "The First Wives Club," "Waiting to Exhale," "Clueless" and "Bridget Jones's Diary."

The conventional wisdom, says Coolidge, is that men make moviegoing decisions for themselves and for their girlfriends. "The audience that studios have cultivated are young men. Young men, they feel, are easy to please. They seek out action, and then they'll take girls on dates." Similarly, when Sarah Jacobson brought her do-it-yourself sexual awakening triumph "Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore" to Sundance, distributors told her, "Girls don't go to the movies without their boyfriends. It's just not a viable market."

Never mind that pair-dating is virtually obsolete as a social ritual, that teen girls were the ones who turned "Titanic" into a monolith, or that, as Coolidge says, "the adult female audience is the biggest audience in the world." The industry, she says, "is run primarily by young men who understand the audience that runs out on a Friday night and sees movies that have violence or sexual exploitation in them. When you get to making a movie from a girl's point of view, they don't know what to make of it."

This is also true, arguably, of the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board. "Coming Soon," Colette Burson's comedy about satisfaction-seeking high-school girls, was initially slapped with the deadly NC-17 rating despite having no nudity or violence whatsoever. At the same time, as Michelle Chihara wrote in the Boston Phoenix, Joel Schumacher's "8mm," a movie about snuff films that took place in the S/M demimonde, had no problem getting an R rating, which allows a film to play in normal multiplex theaters and be advertised in heartland daily newspapers.

Given these prejudices, it's not surprising that a study done by Women Make Movies found, according to Zimmerman, that "women who were trying to make films about women were getting the lowest amount of money" of any prospective filmmakers.

Not every woman wants to make specifically female films. Then they run into other problems. Women don't get to do blockbuster movies, and those rare exceptions, like Mimi Leder, who directed the George Clooney action spectacular "The Peacemaker," and Kathryn Bigelow, director of "K-19: The Widowmaker," simply prove the rule.

"Many, many times I've gone to a studio or producer with the idea of doing a movie that I'm passionate about and found that they can't conceive of a woman doing material that is not completely chick-centric," says Coolidge. She badly wanted to make a movie about Johnny Spain, a mixed-race member of the San Quentin Six who was too black for white society and too white for the Black Panthers, but was told it would be un-PC for a white woman to direct a film about a black man. (Few flinched when Michael Mann beat out Spike Lee for "Ali.")

According to Mira Nair, director of the acclaimed "Salaam Bombay" and the wildly successful "Monsoon Wedding," no one will come out and tell a director that she's not being considered because she's a woman, but it's easy to sense. "Once I was very keen on a political thriller," she says. "I went out to L.A. to lobby for it and I got the vibe that they were humoring me."

Harron notes that while she's happy with her career, "'American Psycho' made a huge amount of money. It did very, very well in Europe and tremendously well on video, and I think if I was a guy I would have had a lot more offers having made that film. It doesn't bother me so much because I do my own work and I have two small children, but if I was younger and single, it would be very frustrating to wonder why Darren Aronofsky [director of 'Pi' and 'Requiem for a Dream'] gets offered some huge thing and I don't."

Regardless of what type of film they make, says Lauzen, there's no evidence to suggest films by women earn less in the domestic market than films by men. "In Hollywood there's this perception that films made by women do not earn as much as films made by men, and that actually is not true," she says. "We have done the statistical analysis on box office grosses, comparing films that had women behind the scenes with others. The notion that films made by women don't earn as much just doesn't hold up."

But those analyses don't take the foreign market into account, and Ephron says that market's importance is a crucial reason why action movies -- which many women don't want to direct, while those who do are rarely permitted to -- dominate studio output. "The movies that make the most money are aimed at a subliterate market. By which I mean not just teenage boys, but the entire Third World. The effect of the foreign market on the movies that are getting made is huge." The movies that do well in those markets, she says, "are very much like video games. They have very little dialogue and a great deal of action and explosions. They do very well, so you're always going to find people more receptive to making movies like that."

The people in Hollywood, says Ephron, "are always looking for the safest thing they can do. The safest thing a studio can do is pay $20 million to a male star who is big in Asia. If you aren't making a high-budget action movie with one of those male stars, everything you are doing gets harder and harder going down the scale, until you get down to independent filmmakers trying to make a $1 million movie about a woman."

If a director battles through and makes these most difficult of movies, often she'll face problems with distribution. Sarah Kernochan, who won her second Oscar in March for her short documentary "Thoth," said that "after seven years of tireless hustling to get it done," her cult teen comedy "All I Wanna Do" was sabotaged because Miramax bought the film but had no idea what to do with it.

Starring Kirsten Dunst, Rachael Leigh Cook and Lynn Redgrave, the movie was set in a New England boarding school whose students were fighting a proposed merger with a nearby boys academy. Though Miramax paid $3.5 million for it, the company decided to send it straight to video. Kernochan begged for permission to use her own money to open the movie in New York and Los Angeles, and emptied her savings account to pay for weeklong engagements.

"They convinced themselves that there was no way to get an audience, no way to get teenage girls into theaters," says Kernochan, a Hollywood screenwriter who also won a directing Oscar for her 1972 documentary "Marjoe." The idea was that girls "always went to see the boys' movie."

Miramax executives had a slightly different interpretation of events. "There was a difference of opinion regarding the marketability of the project," says Matthew Hiltzik, Miramax's vice president of corporate communications. Kernochan "declined to make certain changes" that Hiltzik says were needed to make the film more appealing to all audiences, not just to boys. "We respected her passion for the project and offered her the opportunity to distribute it through other means," he says. "Ultimately, the film's performance suggests there was merit to our suggestions." (It also suggests that teen films can't take off without a marketing budget and a wide release.)

Nevertheless, "All I Wanna Do" finally did make money on video. "I know by the size of my residual checks that it's done well, because I'm getting checks bigger than anything I've made off studio movies I've written," Kernochan says. Despite that, and the fact that she's won Oscars for two of the three films she's directed, Kernochan has yet to find backing for the dark comedy she wants to direct next.

In fact, after all the barriers women overcome to make a first film, many times the real struggle doesn't begin until they want to do a second one. According to an analysis by the Guerrilla Girls and Alice Locas, by last year, 56 percent of the men who'd had films in the 1996 Sundance festival had made another movie. Only 33 percent of women had.

Even though Rebecca Miller's first film "Angela" won the Filmmakers' Trophy and the cinematography award at the 1995 Sundance, it took her until last year to make her second movie, "Personal Velocity," which won the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year. Five years passed between Nicole Holofcener's 1996 indie hit "Walking and Talking" (which the New York Times called "a date movie so enjoyably prickly it will seem funniest if you don't have a date") and her latest, "Lovely & Amazing." There was a seven-year gap between Alison Maclean's first movie, "Crush," and her fulsomely praised "Jesus' Son." Maria Maggenti hasn't made another film since her lovely, influential 1995 "The Incredible Adventures of Two Girls in Love."

Partly, says Allison Anders, whose movies include "Gas Food Lodging," "Grace of My Heart" and "Things Behind the Sun," this is a result of Hollywood's fetishization of the boy wonder. "There's always going to be some boy who they're going to be five times more excited about" than any woman director, she says. "There's never been a 'girl wonder' mythology."

Thus, no matter how well received a woman's first film is, it rarely generates the kind of frothing excitement with which Hollywood greets a parade of male prodigies such as Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson. "Male executives are looking for fantasy images of their younger selves," says Mary Harron, and this pertains to both the people and the films they celebrate.

At the same time, Anders says women are partly responsible for their failure to get second films done. As soon as a director makes her first movie, she says, "you have to have the next thing ready to go. I've been amazed watching people who are not ready with their scripts when they're getting a lot of attention. Preferably you should already be shooting your second one before the first one's out there. You've got to strike while the iron's hot. When 'Gas Food Lodging' was released I had already shot 'Mi Vida Loca.'"

For some reason, she says, women get caught unprepared more than men. "I don't know if women have this illusion that suddenly the doors are going to open up, but I think that women really have to be five times more conscientious about what they're going to do next. The doors are only going to open up for a second."

It's here that the issue gets complicated, because as much as some of these stories lend themselves to a straight-up feminist analysis, there are also internal barriers that keep women back. Despite her problems with Miramax, Kernochan also says her obstacles have been largely psychological (she also says that, at 54, ageism is a bigger problem for her than sexism). "In Jungian psychiatry it's called the spoiler, the voice that blames. It says, 'Of course this isn't happening for you, you're a woman, or your project isn't good enough.'"

Similarly, Alex Sichel, director of the sweet, searing 1997 riot-grrl lesbian film "All Over Me," is still workshopping material for a follow-up. She talks about feeling anxious once her work was out in the world and of struggling with writing. Women, she says, sometimes need "a different process to come out with their ideas."

And then there's that old bugaboo of successful women -- balancing work and children, which both Nair and Choy cite as their biggest hurdle. "It's difficult to raise children when you have to be on the set for six weeks," says Choy, noting that after leaving her family for a three-month shoot in Namibia, she had to face her own guilt and her husband's resentment, and she decided that "on my next project I wouldn't go so far away."

But while self-imposed limits enter into the equation, there's still a very real hierarchy of power to contend with, and it puts men on top, nonwhite men and white women somewhere below, and nonwhite women on the bottom. As Anders says about second films, "If you're not white, tack on another couple of years. It's almost like, thank you, black woman lesbian, we've heard that voice. Goodbye."

Thus despite the fact that Leslie Harris' first movie, "Just Another Girl on the IRT," got positive reviews and made a profit, 10 years later she's still trying to put together funding for her follow-up, "Royalties, Rhythm and Blues," a behind-the-scenes look at a woman working in the hip-hop industry. Though written for a multicultural cast, Harris says, "My passion is to make a three-dimensional black woman who is the lead of the film. That has been a challenge for me. I've been told -- a lot -- that black women can't carry a film."

Despite such frustrating responses, Harris evinces remarkably little bitterness. "I'm confident that I'll get it done. Hopefully things will change and the industry will be more receptive and I'll be there waiting with this great script and they'll greenlight it."

Given the massive amounts of money to be made off hip-hop culture, Harris' idea would seem salable. But one strange thing about the treatment of female directors -- and, by extension, female subjects -- is how often it defies economic logic. At the very least, one would expect Hollywood to try to exploit the female audience out of craven self-interest. As Anders says, "They should be able to market anything. This is America. They sell us everything under the fucking sun."

As the success of TV shows from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" to "Sex and the City" suggests, there's an enormous audience for stories revolving around interesting heroines. Women buy more novels than men. They've made hits out of the mainstream movies that truly address their concerns.

But the movie industry is a dream factory, and the resistance to women in it seems based, in part, on the subterranean longings of the men who run it. "Whoever is putting up the money -- as much as they might want to be eclectic and varied in their thinking, their taste and experience and subconscious desires come into it," says Nancy Savoca, whose films include "Dogfight," "Household Saints" and "24 Hour Woman." "If you look at the movies, they're all the fantasy of a studio executive who's making the decision to greenlight a movie. It's about whether you've caught his imagination. His imagination says a middle-aged man having a problem with his wife, that seems really good. His imagination says a woman should look a certain way, and there's your A-list actresses."

Ephron disputes this idea, noting the ascendance of women studio executives like Columbia head Amy Pascal and Universal chair Stacey Snider. "Ten years ago almost every studio was run by men, and if you were interested in doing a movie about a woman it was very hard to find someone with power who even understood what you were talking about," she says. That's no longer true. "I don't think you can blame the men who run the industry anymore. There are too many women running the industry."

Some in Hollywood, though, say that the women who've scaled the studio hierarchy have done so by adopting retrograde ideas. "One thing we have to remember is they've grown up in the boys' network. They've been acculturated to believe that a commercial film is a male film," says Linda Seger, a script consultant and the author of "When Women Called the Shots: The Developing Power and Influence of Women in Television and Film." "Some of this is really unconscious. This is a very practical business. These women are working 12, 15, 16 hours a day. They haven't been taking classes on feminist theory."

In fact, many directors say the number of women studio heads only adds to their disappointment with the current situation. After all, in the early '90s, few anticipated the current stagnation. Back then, as some women were moving into positions of power in Hollywood, others were garnering praise in the burgeoning indie world, a scene that was electric but still obscure enough that the profit motive hadn't occluded all other values.

"Nancy Savoca and I came along at a brilliant time," says Anders. "People weren't expecting to make huge amounts of money, so you could do very personal, character-driven work and you could set up your next project based on the fact that you got into some prestigious festivals. Now it's much harder."

That's because in the last decade the indie scene has undergone massive consolidation, merging with the studio system to form what many call Indiewood. Once executives realized there were big profits to be made, films unlikely to yield immediate high grosses went by the wayside. "The minute 'Pulp Fiction' had that awesome opening weekend we were fucked," says Anders. Adds Savoca, "The indie movie is dead. If you scratch the surface of independent film financiers, they just want to be studio people. All people want is the runaway hit."

"Even at Sundance, a film that's considered small now is not really small," says Harris. "It has well-known actors or actresses. 'Monster's Ball' is considered a small film. Now, if you want a wide distribution you have to get talent that the studio feels will bring in box office." Films that don't bring in box office results immediately tend to get booted from theaters before they can build word of mouth.

To address this, Veneruso and Katie Lanegran run "The First Weekenders Group," an e-mail list encouraging its 1,600 members to see women's films as soon as they open. When it comes to independent films, such audience-building measures will likely be more effective than badgering industry bigwigs. Businessmen may never defer to the call for equality, but they can be convinced by the possibility of profits.

The First Weekenders Group is but one encouraging recent development. The very existence of Alice Locas, which aims to do for the film business what the Guerrilla Girls did for the art world, is another. When the Guerrilla Girls formed in 1985, according to pseudonymous member Kathe Kollwitz, the art world looked a lot like the film industry does today, with only a tiny fraction of women showing at major galleries. Today, the proportions are nearly equal. Perhaps the greatest reason for optimism was this year's Sundance, where women swept the top prizes. In addition to Rebecca Miller's "Personal Velocity," there was "Daughter From Danang," co-directed by Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco, which won the Documentary Grand Jury Prize, and Patricia Cardoso's "Real Women Have Curves," which took the Dramatic Audience Award.

So it's obvious, at least, that women can make great movies. What's less clear is just how many more they need to make before their stories stop being dismissed as irrelevant, their talents as narrow and their audience as nonexistent.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

MORE FROM Michelle Goldberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------