Female Directors in Hollywood: Are Things Getting Any Better?

Ava DuVernay

You might have been forced to suppose otherwise, but believe me: a “female director” is not a rare breed of artist by any means. But a Hollywood film directed by one? That’s a different story.

Sadly, a recent exploration of the industry site The Wrap revealed that we aren’t about to see the light at the end of the tunnel anytime soon when it comes to the small number of films –especially big-budget ones- directed by women. Thanks to their thorough survey, we now know that 20th Century Fox and Paramount -two of the “Big Six” major film studios-, will not have a single release directed by a woman through 2018. Fox (not including Fox Searchlight) will release 22 movies during this period. Paramount will open 25 movies throughout the same timeframe. Let me spell it out for you again: men will direct all of these films.

You have probably already memorized the broad brushstrokes of dire industry stats. But in case anyone needs a refresher: According to a 2015 study conducted by San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in TV and Film (titled The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind the Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 250 Films of 2014), women accounted for only “17% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 (domestic) films.” The study notes that this is precisely the same percentage as 1998. The news is equally grim when glancing at the director’s chair. In 2014, women accounted for 7% of directors only among the top 250 films: a teensy bit up from 2013’s 6% and down from 1998’s 9%. You know the state of things is disheartening when we have to take even the slightest fluctuation into account. But the overarching fact remains loud and clear: the problem is severe and deeply rooted, and the needle doesn’t seem to be moving fast enough towards a brighter future. The recent revelations about 20th Century Fox and Paramount, unfortunately, support this narrative.

Like many, I feel like I have written this article before. And I do hate sounding like a broken record in emphasizing systemic gender bias in Hollywood, though it turns out some things bear repeating as the industry-wide outcries about Hollywood’s discrimination against females continue to be disregarded and ignored by the tone-deaf ears of decision makers. But above all that, there is something substantial that makes this particular piece of news different, more severe and harder to swallow. It is one thing to be confronted by back-to-back male-helmed big budgets and tent poles and grow numb towards the persistent pain of it throughout a cinematic calendar year. It is entirely another to be told in advance there are a few more years (if not more) of steady suffering ahead. True, we could all guess it. But now we’re shown its indisputability.

It is, of course, no excuse, but as The Wrap also briefly notes, it’s essential (and cautiously optimistic) to remember that these projects of the two studios were put in development a while ago, likely before the conversation around Hollywood’s gender discrimination reached peak levels. In the last year alone, we have seen numerous thought-provoking headlines, been awakened by frequent quotes (and even essays) from/by prominent film industry feminists like Jessica Chastain, Ava DuVernay, and Lexi Alexander (just to name a few), and witnessed the start of a momentous examination by ACLU in the spring of 2015. The organization found “rampant discrimination” in the industry against female directors and demanded an investigation of hiring practices of Hollywood’s major players. Consequently, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) pledged to interview some 50 female directors starting last fall to dive deep into personal experiences and examine patterns of discriminative practices.

So, where does that leave us and what can we expect from the future in light of the recent groundswell of call for equality? Sure, the film industry isn’t just the big studios. And yes, names like Marielle Heller are thankfully starting to get attached to big, splashy projects (a career path usually reserved for male star directors of Sundance.) But I am not holding my breath to see any noticeable, earth-shattering shifts in the next few years, simply because the growing awareness around Hollywood’s sexism –as demonstrated by the Fox and Paramount slates- will take a long time to translate into genuinely promising stats. As I have outlined in my Oscars recap piece, the upcoming awards season isn’t likely to give us many female directors. The festival circuit doesn’t seem to challenge my suspicions either. The recently revealed Cannes slate has only three female-directed films in main competition (Toni Erdman by Maren Ade, American Honey by Andrea Arnold and From the Land of the Moon by Nicole Garcia,) as reported by Melissa Silverstein and Casey Cipriani of Women and Hollywood.

What’s clear and promising is that studios can expect to be regularly and frequently called out on their nauseating bias from this point on. There is no avoiding it or hiding from it. We are approaching a tipping point slowly. We are just not quite there yet.