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NY Times Debate: How Can Women Gain Influence in Hollywood?

Women and Hollywood’s Melissa Silverstein, someone I consider to be a growing voice in the film community, has co-curated a panel for the New York Times on women and their influence in Hollywood.  Or rather, their non-existent influence in Hollywood. It’s a must-read and a subject that should not be abandoned because we … oh look, shiny object.

Why does anyone care about this subject? Because it’s a glaring, ongoing problem that doesn’t appear to be getting fixed any time soon. More salt was rubbed in the wound when Sight & Sound listed its top fifty Greatest Films of All Time, which ended up being a lot like Oscar’s own single-minded vision:


When the Academy had a solid ten Best Picture slots, in 2009 and 2010, it afforded more opportunities for women directors to actually have their films nominated for Best Picture, something that hardly ever happens. But last year’s herding cats method, where there could be anywhere between 5 and 9, women were shut out once again and will likely be shut out for some time to come.  Wouldn’t it be a more interesting world if critics and the Academy thought a little bit differently about what defines “best”?

A quick history:

Women weren’t directors because women were a powerful force on screen. There was no need to go out and produce their own projects because Hollywood made movies that starred women. You can trace it back twenty years, the decline of films starring women that topped the box office. Two things happened that changed everything. The blockbuster effects-driven films rose to prominence  and Julia Roberts changed the way women in film were regarded.  She was the  $100 million baby who could “open” movies. Suddenly it wasn’t about anything except how much money women could bring it at the box office. And little by little, women disappeared. Not only that, but the young ones come in, are used up, and then they, too, disappear. How long before Jennifer Lawrence is gone?  This silly idea of the $100 million baby is really what changed things for the worst for actresses.

Cut to — suddenly actresses start seeing their power diminish and thus, we see a proliferation of female directors starting about the same time, the 1980s, on through the 90s, where they really did have some pull, and now, where they have very little, despite Kathryn Bigelow becoming the first woman EVER to win Best Director at the Oscars.

I remember that Penny Marshall, Nora Ephron and Mimi Leder were powerful because they could earn money with their films. But those days are mostly gone.

Nancy Meyers has eked out a niche but seems to be the poster girl for why women directors make bad films.  Ditto Elaine May, whose Ishtar was unfairly considered one of the worst films every made (hardly).  But the film community now rarely gets excited about an up and coming director if she’s female. Can you imagine if a guy had directed We Need to Talk About Kevin? He’d be hailed as the new genius. Conversely, imagine if a woman had directed Beasts of the Southern Wild? We build monuments to men in this business.  We barely give women the time of day. They are either money, or they’re tits and ass.  But geniuses?  I can think of two who are hailed as such by the critics: Bigelow (for the Hurt Locker, currently under backlash) and Jane Campion. Sofia Coppola and Sarah Polley are in there, too. Debra Granik, Courtney Hunt and Lynne Ramsay, though?  Just imagine if their most lauded films had been directed by men: careers made.

So you see, it is an ongoing evolution and I’m afraid women have to be louder, meaner and more willing to confront the status quo.

Women control the business from the backend. Most of the best publicists I know are women.  There are many women who work everywhere in film except in the power seat — the female writer/directors are shunned, just as, it’s worth noting, other minorities film directors are: unless they make a movie that appeals to the white, male demographic they can never make one of the Greatest Films of All Time.

If I had been asked to contribute to the piece I would have said something along the lines of what Silverstein said:

Respect our stories.

One thing that continues to confuse me is how it happened that the stories of male action heroes became the dominant narratives of our time. Women make up 51 percent of the population, but our stories don’t really seem to matter to Hollywood. That’s why a blockbuster success like “The Help” or “Bridesmaids” comes as such a shock.

Don’t read doom and gloom into every failure.

Men fail up in Hollywood and women fail out. Because there is no critical mass of women directors, women onscreen and women’s films in the development pipeline, films about women and films directed by women simply trickle into theaters. And while successful movies are not replicated quickly enough to build momentum, movie failures have large-scale implications.

Ultimately, putting women into power positions in front of the camera and behind the scenes makes financial sense, because as the statistics from the Motion Picture Association of America show, women buy half of all movie tickets.

And ultimately, money should be the message.

And here’s Martha Coolidge (I’m sorry I had to cut and paste her whole piece):

I was raised to believe I was equal and discovered, working in movies, that this wasn’t true. I’ve spent my life trying to change that. Though female directors are now a small part of the industry, we are an invisible minority. Even in government, we lack representation. It feels like we’ve gone backward. The cultural dismissal of women is so ingrained that the public, including women, doesn’t seem to perceive a problem.

For example, in the movie world, Steven Spielberg has always been seen as the quintessential wunderkind. And studios are always on the lookout for the next “boy wonder.” Thousands of would-be directors enter film school every year believing they could be the one, but only the best achieve careers. For a guy, competition is fierce, but for a woman, winning the lottery is a safer bet.

So how can we foster the first “girl wonder”?

Here is my dramatic answer: I believe we should legislate an intervention in hiring practices, similar to a civil rights or equal opportunity employment act against discrimination in private organizations. Are Republicans and Democrats going to join hands to pass this? No.

So here are my other ideas.

1. We should learn to identify with female heroes and leaders. This will open up all genres to women and empower female directors to tell stories the mass audience wants to see.

2. Young women should believe successful directing careers are within their reach. They should then train and hone their craft.

3. Producers and studios should hire many more women than they do now and truly embrace the belief that one of them could be “it.” They should judge women on the strength of their ideas and work, not on their sex appeal.

4. Producers shouldn’t limit women to lower budget films. They should expect them to handle big crews, big budgets, big ideas and big stars.

5. All of us, parents and teachers starting in childhood, and later men in the business, should never ask girls and/or women to play into gender-based feminine behavior.

6. Competitive women in particular should want success as a director before anything else, like finding a man or having a family. Successful directors are workaholics who define themselves by their careers and seek the company of their creative colleagues.

7. Women should feel secure with power, employing and delegating to others, and making decisions alone.

8. As a culture, we should embrace women in command. We should accept their eccentric behavior, and at times, the tantrums that come along with the extreme pressures of producing great work. Most women directors learn to walk a delicate line between being “difficult” and wimpy. Male directors don’t waste time or energy on this.

9. We should remember that men and women are equals. The emphasis on the differences of our genders in marketing, sports, school and, most problematic of all, religion, is not doing us any favors in show business.

10. We should glamorize female directors: mythologize them and promote their successes. Only then will the younger generations grasp, in a realistic and exciting way, the possibility of a movie-making “girl wonder.”

And Ted Hope says:

Mainstream mass-market film culture is stuck in a deep rut. When making money is the top priority, people produce work and hire people who keep them in power. Call it risk mitigation or cowardice, the lack of women in Hollywood comes from the same root.

Industries are like people: they change only when the pain of the present outweighs the fear of the future. The stakes may be too great for Hollywood to ever accept that audiences and communities want something other than what they have already had. If audiences continue to behave like the March Hare in “Alice in Wonderland,” confusing “I like what I get” for “I get what I like,” neither films nor the entities that produce them will evolve.

But I’ll add to it by saying:

We women have to step up and kick down the doors down. We have to not be afraid and imprisoned by our sex. The same way I think it’s wrong for African-American actors to always have to play positive images of African-Americans (that is too heavy of a burden for an artist) women should feel free to go dark, dirty, violent, crass — to not feel obliged to always make films about admirable female characters but to take on the challenge that men do — to tell stories that aren’t always about perfect women living in perfect homes with their perfect clothes and oh, if only Prince Charming would arrive soon then it will all be better.  We women know the darker sides of life.  We should feel free to tell these stories without fear of society’s scorn. And that part of it is up to us.

Many of the female directors I admire — Kathryn Bigelow, Jane Campion, Kimberly Pierce, Alison Anders, Courtney Hunt, Debra Granik all are not afraid to tell dark, interesting, visually arresting stories. It just so happens that the male dominated community of critics, and audiences, are receptive to their work.  But would any of these movies by these directors get anywhere near the Greatest Films of All Time list? Nope.  It gets back to what Silverstein is saying: there is little respect for the aesthetic of how women tell stories cinematically which is, not to generalize, different from how men do.

So where does it start? With starts with us. It starts with the people who shape the debate, the tastemakers, the critics. It starts by those minds ever-so-slowly getting used to the notion of a different kind of narrative for what is great.  And that is no easy feat. Try being a woman who writes about film on Twitter. Not only do most of the serious discussions on film involve only men but the linking you see on Facebook or Twitter to articles and reviews are usually written by men. Men respect other men and there are few women who can get the time of day with them. What I’ve learned is that you either have to be cute and sexy to get their attention (that’s the easiest way) or confrontational. If you challenge them they will pay attention to you.

It is not going to be easy, altering perception.  But it is not impossible either.

In 2010, I had a fit when The Kids Are All Right beat the Social Network at the New York Film Critics for screenplay. I was horrified that anyone could see that as a better written script. In the years since I’ve rewatched The Kids Are All Right many times and I think it is equally as good as The Social Network, which was made magnificent by Fincher’s directing. I was wrong to condemn The Kids Are All Right and if I had to do it over again I would change that.

We have to foster and support minority film writers and directors — give them confidence to do bold, challenging work by shifting our own perspective — we might have to redefine what we think of as The Greatest Films of All Time! We might. I may never live to see any significant shift but I’ll die trying, my friends. I’ll die trying.

 The full story is here. 

Further reading: the $100 Baby and the Dismal Tide