Only 28 Percent Of Independent Film Directors Are Women

Mya Taylor accepts the award for best supporting female for “Tangerine” at the Film Independent Spirit Awards on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016, in Santa Monica, Calif. CREDIT: PHOTO BY CHRIS PIZZELLO/INVISION/AP
Mya Taylor accepts the award for best supporting female for “Tangerine” at the Film Independent Spirit Awards on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016, in Santa Monica, Calif. CREDIT: PHOTO BY CHRIS PIZZELLO/INVISION/AP

A just-released study on the state of women working behind the camera in independent films reveals that we have, once and for all, achieved gender parity. Women are directing 50 percent of all the indie flicks and then they are getting gigs on big studio movies to direct our cinematic masterpieces and blockbusters starring superheroes and dinosaurs and such, and also they are being nominated for and winning Oscars, and everything is going swimmingly. Change has come to America!

Oh, sorry, nope, spoke too soon: The study, “Women in Independent Film, 2015–16,” found that the percentage of women working behind the camera in independent film is “stagnant.” While the numbers in independent film are marginally better than the data on female representation in studio films, the whole picture is still one of sexism, exclusion, disappointment, etc.

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Only 28 percent of all directors working in independent film in the past year are women, which is, yes, higher than the abysmal nine percent of all directors responsible for the top-grossing films of 2015. But, you know, that’s grading on a curve. Since Dr. Martha Lauzen began conducting this study in 2008, the stats have remained essentially the same. That 28 percent is only five points up from last year’s study and is lower than the record high of 29 percent, which was reached in 2011–2012. High profile film festivals in the United States screened more than three times as many narrative films directed by men as by women and twice as many documentaries by men as by women.

Lauzen’s research on women “working in film and television, both on screen and behind the scenes,” as she put it, dates back to the mid-1990s. Her study, the Celluloid Ceiling, which tracks how many women work on top-grossing films, has been released annually for 18 years. She spoke with ThinkProgress by phone about the key takeaways from her latest study and what she thinks it will take to actually achieve gender parity in the film industry.

Clearly representation of women in the film industry is something you’ve studied, broadly, for a long time. What sparked your interest in this research?

I kept hearing, reading in the trades or newspaper, that things were getting so much better for women in film, both onscreen and behind the scenes, and I just wasn’t seeing that in the images on screen or on the credits. I was trained as a social scientist, so I just started to do the research. The media reports at the time were full of anecdotal stories. This was in the ’90s. They’d praise a certain film for having a female protagonist or for having a woman director, and it just didn’t seem to me that things were getting better in a systematic way, so I started to do this research.

What did you think your data would reveal?

At the time, I didn’t really know what to expect. Twenty years ago, this was not an issue that got a lot of attention. When I was reading these stories about how women were doing, they were pretty much confined to an occasional article in the L.A. Times. There were special women’s issues of the Hollywood Reporter or Variety that were timed to come out with events put on by industry groups, like Women in Film. So there wasn’t a lot of public dialogue about this issue. Over the years, what I’ve seen is that the issue has done a slow build. Until finally, when we got to Oscar season this year, where the issue clearly exploded and was everywhere, and really, people talked about little else, other than diversity.

‘It just didn’t seem to me that things were getting better in a systematic way, so I started to do this research.’

That conversation, though, focused mostly on race. And “Women in Independent Film, 2015–16” is only about gender, correct?

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I do a lot of studies every year. So for example, the Celluloid Ceiling study started 18 years ago, and that looks at women working in powerful roles behind the scenes: Directors, writers, producers, cinematographers, editors, and occasionally composers — depends how much time and money we have! But I also do a study on women’s representation on screen, and that is called, “It’s a Man’s Celluloid World,” and there we do look at race and ethnicity. Here’s the thing: In order to consider race or ethnicity of those working behind the scenes, it’s a tricky thing. Really, unless you have self-reported data from all of those individuals, at least some of the time, you’re going to be guessing. And I would not want to sacrifice accuracy in order to get those numbers.

The word that stuck out to me in your study is “stagnant.” To quote from the study: “Overall, women’s representation in key behind-the-scenes roles is stagnant. In 2015–16, women comprised 25 percent of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers. This represents a decrease of one percentage point from 26 percent in 2014–15, and an increase of one percentage point from 24 percent in 2008–09.” Why is change so slow — or, maybe more accurately, non-existent?

We would expect that perhaps, there would be a time lag between when this conversation takes place and really takes off and when studio films might reflect that change. They really plan fairly far out, and have their slate of films for the next couple of years set. But that would not be the case in independent film. So if you were going to see change, this would probably be the place where you would first see that movement, so it is particularly disappointing to see that the numbers are stagnant in independent film.

How much of this sexism do you think is a conscious effort — people in positions of power actively excluding women from their ranks — and how much of it do you think is more unconscious, with people saying “I’ll just work with this guy that I know” and inadvertently leaving women out?

Honestly, I think that most of it is probably unconscious. People do feel most comfortable with others who reflect their own demographic profile. I think a lot of it is that people work with others that they know and who they feel comfortable with. And you start to see those kinds of relationships form even in film school. I can tell you that I did a survey of top film schools in the country — and this was extremely difficult information to get; this was almost the hardest study we ever did, because people don’t want to reveal their ratios — and what we found was that women comprised one-third to over one-half of students at the schools we surveyed. So what that tells me is that women are well-represented in the student population in film school. It’s not the case that women just don’t find film interesting as a career. It’s that something happens once they get out to suppress their numbers.

At what point in the process, then, do you think women hit a wall where men don’t?

I probably can’t explain that because there are a million different ways to get an independent film made. There isn’t just one path. Certainly, though, financing is an issue for everyone. And again we have to go back to those larger cultural biases that may dictate someone simply feeling more comfortable handing a check for $50,000 or $100,000 or a million dollars to a man as opposed to a woman, whether that individual is the director or a producer.

What do you think are the most vital takeaways from your study?

A few things: One is, in spite of the increasing dialogue about this issue, the numbers have yet to move. And we are not seeing year-to-year growth in the place that perhaps we would most expect to see that growth, which would be independent film. There may be a perception out there, second, that well, women may not fare very well in studio films, in terms of employment, but things are much better in independent films. And this study would suggest, well, they’re a bit better in independent films, but women are still far from parity with their male counterparts.

‘Honestly, at this point, I think that the powers that be in the industry have not demonstrated any real will to change. And that’s essential for propelling any kind of significant movement.’

If you’re looking for some good news, and who isn’t, if you look under important relationships: When a film has at least one woman director, the percentage of woman as writers, editors and cinematographers greatly increase. And once again, those relationships may be the result of conscious or subconscious bias.

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What’s your take on the efforts that have been made, thus far, to address gender inequality in film? Have you seen anything you think will be effective?

There are many, I think, well-intentioned but piecemeal solutions out there. So if you get on the Directors Guild of America website, you’ll see mentoring programs and shadowing programs sponsored by the DGA or maybe a studio or some production company, and that’s great. But the fact is, those programs only take a handful of individuals every year. And this problem is much larger than that. So really, I think there needs to be an industry-wide solution. This is an industry-wide problem. You may be aware that the EEOC is currently conducting an investigation of possible discriminatory hiring practices of directors. Honestly, at this point, I think that the powers that be in the industry have not demonstrated any real will to change. And that’s essential for propelling any kind of significant movement. In the absence of that will to change, I think it is likely that any significant and sustained change is going to come as a result of some kind of intervention by an external force, like the EEOC.

Do you get discouraged producing study after study that says “the numbers aren’t moving”? If nothing is changing, why is it so important to you to continue to do this work and publish the results?

Because visibility is so important to generating a conversation about the issue — visibility of the numbers. The numbers keep the discussion grounded in some reality. If you don’t have the numbers, it’s so easy to be misled by a few high profile cases. It’s so easy to be misled by, I can give you a couple specific examples: When Bridesmaids became a huge hit, everybody said, “Certainly things are going to change now!” When Kathryn Bigelow won her Oscar, a very-well deserved Oscar, for The Hurt Locker, people said, “Well, this changes everything!” And change doesn’t really work that way. But again, just a few high profile cases can really skew our thinking about how women are doing on-screen, behind the scenes, and on television. So it’s really important to have these numbers, and to have them every year.

One concern I have is, feminism is popular right now, as is talking about gender equality. Jennifer Lawrence is writing about the wage gap in Lenny and Emma Watson is talking about the He for She campaign, and all of that is useful, and all of that is bound to go away, because the trends will shift and another issue will become the hot issue of the day. Do you think that the fact that feminism and gender quality is “having a moment” is ultimately helpful, because it’s better than nothing? Is it bad, because people will tire of it? Net neutral?

That’s a great question and observation. I don’t think I could say it’s bad, but you know how the press operates these days. An issue gets really hot, and you’ve got these really short news cycles, and then everybody moves on. The issue of diversity was certainly the issue at the Oscars this year, and I suspect if there are no individuals of color nominated next year, it’ll be an issue again. But issues do come and go today, that’s absolutely true. The news cycle is very impatient. But I’ve been doing this for so long, I have sort of witnessed the build and now we’ll just have to see what happens from here. We’ll have to see if attention wanes or whether it’s got some longevity. It’s hard to say. A lot of it is up to the press. I’m going to keep on doing the research! And the Guilds release numbers every year. So the information will be available.

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What do you think is missing from this conversation about gender inequality in Hollywood? What misconceptions do you think the average audience member has about these issues?

There are a couple of things. One would be that the heads of studios have been conspicuously silent on this issue, and when they do talk about the issue, they speak in generalities. And I feel that journalists do not hold their feet to the fire. They do not press them. I understand, for journalists, it’s their job to maintain relationships with sources, but I feel that the studio heads are let off the hook quite often. Also, journalists will tend to only ask the gender question of female heads of studios, and female executives, as if this is just a “women’s issue,” but in order for significant change to occur, the men will have to be involved. Men make up the majority of decision makers and executives and people in behind the scenes roles, they are going to have to be a significant part of any change. So I think leaving them out of the discussion is a problem.

‘Men make up the majority of decision makers and executives and people in behind the scenes roles, they are going to have to be a significant part of any change. So I think leaving them out of the discussion is a problem.’

Why do you think those questions don’t get directed at men? Why don’t men weigh in more, of their own volition?

I think for most men, it’s simply not something that they think about because it doesn’t affect them. As for why do journalists only ask these questions of the women, I think in our culture, in order to be concerned about women’s issues you have to be a woman. Which, again, is just ridiculous — anything that affects half of the population necessarily also affects the other half.

What about these film festivals just taking it upon themselves to implement a structure that would solve the problem, at least at their level? Could Sundance, for instance, instate a quota? Couldn’t they just say — to use easy numbers — we’re screening 100 films this year, and 50 of them must have female directors?

There would be a lot of opinions on that, wouldn’t there? The Europeans are way ahead of us on this! The countries where they have federal funding on films, they’re now saying, it should be 50/50. I think that that’s not a bad idea. The thing is that, in order to do something about a problem, you have to recognize something is a problem, and I don’t think — other than being a public relations nuisance — I don’t really think that the major studios feel they have a problem, in terms of women as directors or producers, or women not as protagonists.

Knowing what studio heads must know now, though, about how well movies by and about women do financially, why hasn’t the economic imperative changed their thinking? They’re leaving so much money on the table.

Here’s the thing: That’s taking a very rational approach to business practices. But what I have learned over the years is that a lot of our attitudes and biases about gender and/or diversity are not rational. And so, sure! You would think that. And over the years, this has been done, articles have pointed out all the box office successes of female-led films, or films directed by women, and it doesn’t make a dent. I’m sure you’ve heard the example of Colin Trevorrow.

Right, he got plucked from relative obscurity to direct Jurassic World because Brad Bird said, “This guy reminds me of me.”

And that is a greatexample of subconscious bias. I don’t like the term unconscious bias — because it’s not accurate! We’re not passed out when we’re making these decisions. But that’s a great example of how these decisions are not rational; they’re emotional.

In order to do something about a problem, you have to recognize something is a problem, and I don’t think — other than being a public relations nuisance — I don’t really think that the major studios feel they have a problem.

Obviously the film industry doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and the film industry in America exists in a country in which, in every industry and at every level of society, women have not achieved equality. Do you think the entertainment industry will get there — get to parity — before the country does? Will the arts be a leader here? Can we expect, say, 50 percent of the top-grossing films to have female directors before the average American woman has equal pay?

I think the mainstream film industry is desperately behind the gender curve. I think that what film and television do is that they are able to really focus like a laser beam on some groups and on some issues, and bring them to people’s attention. But these images aren’t beamed in from Mars. They do come from us.

READ MORE: Inside The ‘Secret Meeting’ To Solver Gender Inequality In Hollywood