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The State of the Race: Why Aren’t Women Directors in Play?

I was asked on Twitter why women have such a hard time breaking into the Oscar race. It’s the age old question, isn’t it? Indeed, here we are again, heading into the Best Picture contest and, at the moment, no female director is even remotely being discussed for either Best Picture or Best Director. There are a few, like Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe, that might have been considered, but so far they are not in the conversation. The question is, why don’t we in the Oscar blogging world try to get them in the race? Why don’t we consider them?

The truth is that some of us do try. We know that there are a few movies that could be considered if they are well-reviewed, “important” enough, and if they are directed by a name-brand we all know. It also helps to have a PR machine behind you. Take, for example, Suffragette. Heading into that Oscar season we all knew that this film might have had a shot. It had Meryl Streep pushing for it. It was produced by, written by, directed by, and starring well-regarded women — ALL WOMEN — and it was about women getting the right vote in England at the turn of the century, a subject of major importance. But wouldn’t you know it, a controversy bubbled up because the movie was all about white women. The internet was not having it. So whatever sliver of hope the film might have had to even be watched, let alone voted on by Oscar voters, vanished. So no one was nominated, no one won. Oh, perhaps those who protested felt they won, because as long as they punished this movie for having an all-white cast, as long as they kicked up a fuss and there was a sacrifice made, all was right with the world. In their eyes, the outrage machine had served its purpose.

Remember Suffragette, though, when you ask yourself where are all the female directors. Sure, perhaps if the reviews had been better overall it might have been better able to withstand the controversy but I’m not so sure. I see female directors — and black directors too, come to that — are given a much harder time because they are seen to fail in addressing each and every obligatory agenda. We’ve seen the way women are attacked more readily — like Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty, like Ava DuVernay for Selma, and like Sarah Gavron for Suffragette. And there you have at least part of your answer.

So women have it harder overall since they seem required to make sure they check all the boxes — stellar reviews, no controversies, well-known directors, important subject matter. They have to prove themselves on all fronts in order to be considered. But what could be some of the other forces in play that prevent women from getting attention? This is important, after all, since awards attention means more power, and more power means more jobs. Let’s take a deeper look.

For starters, women tend not to be sought after to helm the type of movies we know to be Oscar-bait films, not the way male directors are. To attain that status, they have to build up a certain art cred. Only a small handful have done that, among them Sofia Coppola, Kathryn Bigelow, Ava DuVernay, Jane Campion, Lisa Cholodenko, and Jodie Foster to some degree. Very few female directors are revered by producers. Most of these men who assemble prestige films come from an era and mindset where a woman has to prove she’s not only good enough but significantly better than any of the available male directors. Sufficient doesn’t cut it for women in this system. To build up cred, they need years of support from influential critics. That’s the only guaranteed way you get there. That doesn’t mean it’s the only way to get into the Oscar club, but to build up art cred, almost always the critics need to rave about you, treat you the same way they do a Paul Thomas Anderson or a Nicholas Winding Refn.

Someone like Guy Lodge, for instance, has long been advocating for filmmakers Kelly Reichardt and Andrea Arnold, and because people respect Guy’s opinion so much, his admiration for Reichardt has at last begun to trickle down. Like magic, prestige is born. Guy would no doubt say that her work speaks for itself, but really, film critics play an essential role in shaping the perception of filmmakers. Influential critics can support a female director’s achievements, and help determine whether or not they get Oscar nominations. Both Reichardt and Arnold have films being released this year — Certain Women and American Honey. Both of these films received reviews from Guy Lodge that were scored 100 on Metacritic. Others who have that kind of clout are the two prominent critics at The New York Times, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott. High praise from either of the Times critics will also make a difference. In the end, though, films like these can be brought to Oscar voters, but nothing can make them vote for a film that doesn’t fit inside their comfort zone.

So great reviews alone are not enough to push a film to nomination. Critics might make a movie more palatable so that more Oscar voters will take a chance on it, but they won’t be able to convince them that it is a worthy film. Critical acclaim can start the ball rolling, with inclusion on top ten lists and honors from critics awards. But if the film or the filmmaker is still considered too obscure, many Oscar voters simply won’t touch it. This gambit is even trickier for Oscar teams to pursue, since most critics aren’t all that interested in rooting out films they know Oscar voters will go for. They pick what they think are great films. In fact, it’s no surprise that the more sophisticated critics often have an affinity for films that diverge more and more from the Academy’s preferences.

That said, it never hurts to have critics praise your work, as Lodge has often done. It makes a huge difference to filmmakers who need to establish their clout, since when or if they ever get a movie into the Oscar zone, they may well have an easier time getting there because their status among a select group of critics whose judgment is well respected by their peers will help solidify support by other critics.

The truth of it is many of us in the awards realm would love to see more women get nominated. Nearly all of us. Blogger, critics, avid awards junkies and, believe it or not, Oscar voters themselves. We would all like to see female directors given the opportunity to make the kind of movies that can compete for Best Picture. During that brief period when the Academy provided ten nominating slots on the Best Picture ballot, in each of those years more than two films directed by women were honored with a nomination. But once the AMPAS shrunk their ballot back to five openings, as it now stands, movies directed by women had to be the sort of movie that a majority of middle-aged, straight white males would name as one of their top five favorites of the year. That’s almost impossible in the current climate of pigeon-holing women as only capable of directing so-called “women’s films.”


Here’s how recent history looks: in 2009 and 2010, voters had ten nomination slots on their ballots. Two films directed by women were nominated for Best Picture in each of those years. When the ballot was reduced to five nomination slots but the tabulation process made the number of Best Picture nominees a floating number dependent on the level of #1 support (usually 9 or 8), it became far harder for films directed by women to get nominated. The rate dropped to just one per year, at the most. Since 2010, Zero Dark Thirty and Selma are the only two films directed by women and nominated for Best Picture, in a span of five years.

That should tell you all you need to know about what kinds of films most Oscar voters like: to put it bluntly, men really love films directed by men. When voters were given more nomination slots they had more freedom to consider a greater diversity of subjects, and this gave women a much better chance of getting in. Movies like An Education or Winter’s Bone or The Kids Are All Right would likely not have been nominated under the current system. If we could change this single aspect of the Oscar process, we might be able to regain the recognition briefly achieved for films made by women.

As it is, though, the goal of opening Best Director and Best Picture to more women feels nearly impossible. Clearly, if Zero Dark Thirty and Selma are the only two nominated in the past five years, it’s easy to see that it’s a huge advantage if the film is about something “important.” Like capturing (or killing) Bin Laden, or the triumph and tragedy of Martin Luther King, Jr.  As long as the Academy membership is predominantly male, movies about love or relationships or motherhood, especially those directed by women, can’t seem make the cut. A movie like Brooklyn probably would not have been nominated if a woman had directed it. I don’t know this for a fact but it’s my best guess. The reality is this: there is a certain way that men view the world as filmmakers that translates to the way male voters respond to movies they see. This sidelining of the female sensibility in cinema probably has a parallel for the sensibilities of gay directors, too, which could explain why Todd Haynes has been so cruelly shut out of Oscar recognition throughout his otherwise illustrious career.

On the other hand, relationship movies can do very well when directed by men. La La Land is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Although, in the case of La La Land, it’s not just a movie about a relationship, of course. There is a bigger story involved — about cinema, about Los Angeles, about regret — that appeals to men in the audience. Silver Linings Playbook was another relationship movie — almost a romantic comedy — but it, too, had bigger themes because the central character was struggling with mental illness. (Oh, and he was a man. A man who landed the year’s biggest prize: Jennifer Lawrence.) At the risk of making a broad generalization, probably more women moviegoers than men are interested in relationship movies — and perhaps this reflects the way women in the real world place more value on relationships than so many men seem to do. Maybe this is why women who write and direct relationship films don’t feel the need to add anything more to the story. The relationship is the story. Women are drawn to those kinds of stories. They can be deeply meaningful cinematic experiences. But think about the films by women that are about relationships but are also about bigger issues. Films like Jane Campion’s The Piano, or Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. While relationships are at the center, there is also a visually stirring canvas and profound cultural observations in these movies that reaches beyond romance.

People always say to me, well, women should be able to make any kind of movie they want and men should be willing to watch those movies and consider them worthy, out of fairness. Even if I agreed with that, which hypothetically I do, it just isn’t the reality we’re dealing with when we talk about Oscar voters. Since I’ve been watching their voting patterns for a very long time, I’ve learned a thing or two and formulated a theory or two. One of those theories is that men tend toward visual virtuosos where women tend to go for more emotional depth. Many men can be satisfied completely with a film that stirs them visually and has virtually no content beyond that. Most women tend to need more. Grim as this observation may seem, it’s good news for female directors who are skilled at visual flourish. It’s hard for a woman to get noticed if she doesn’t. Kathryn Bigelow, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola and Ava DuVernay are strong visual stylists, and that helps them with a mostly male jury.

My other theory is that men like to impress women and exert a lot of effort trying to do so. Oddly enough, they are less willing to be impressed by women who overtly try to impress them (unless it’s, you know, sexually). Women are the ultimate prize for a man, but if women are seen to be trying to get recognition for something other than their physical desirability, many men are loathe to give in. You can test this for yourself. Imagine you’re watching, say, Money Monster. Think about how you feel about that movie. Now try to imagine if a man had directed it — a guy like Michael Mann, for example. Same exact film otherwise. Try to imagine what you might think of it. In which situation would you most easily dismiss it? In which instance would you be more likely to give it a chance?  Would you enjoy the ride more or less? I think if you’re honest with yourself you’ll notice that intrinsic sexism, that implicit bias is kind of baked in, because we’ve been conditioned from birth to see women in a certain way, unless a strong force exists to steer us in a different direction. Gender bias is a scientifically verified reality, unfortunately. The goal, therefore, is to work toward changing the cultural perception of women directors, to build them up the way we do male directors.

In the end, though, in order to be someone who can accurately reads the Oscar race, you need to maintain a certain perspective. That perspective may be disagreeable and even uncomfortable, but is what is. To predict what the Academy might do, put aside your idealistic notions of what’s possible and focus instead on what’s probable. Just never forget that virtually all of us in the film industry and the vast support structure surrounding it have our eyes on the progress of women. We watch, we wait, we write, and if we get the chance, we push whenever possible.

Which films directed by women have risen to prominence in the feature film category this year? A quick glance tells us that most of them are not about relationships; they’re about Matters of Importance. So why don’t more of them have Oscar buzz? It’s complicated.

Mira Nair, Queen of Katwe

Kelly Reichardt, Certain Women

Andrea Arnold, American Honey

Amma Assante, A United Kingdom

Rebecca Miller, Maggie’s Plan

Meera Menon, Equity

Courtney Hunt, The Whole Truth