Hey, you. Do you know how much 2013’s female-fronted movies made at the box office? No? Care to guess?
With their totals combined, major Hollywood films like Gravity, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Frozen, and The Heat, along with other smaller releases, made a total of $4 billion in 2013. That’s four billion.
And yet. For the last sixteen years, an academic from San Diego State University has been carefully and quietly compiling annual reports on what she calls the Celluloid Ceiling; the vast gender gap that permeates Hollywood. Martha Lauzen’s research encompasses the 250 top grossing films at the US box office (so we’re not just talking 10 mega blockblusters), crunching the numbers and pulling the stats – and for a gender that makes up 52% of the population and just pulled in $4 billion, we’re not getting a very good deal.
Women have had a rough time behind the camera as well as in front. Only four women – Sofia Copolla, Lina Wertmuller, Jane Campion, and Kathryn Bigelow – have been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director, and Bigelow is the only one to win (The Hurt Locker, 2009). In fact, the pickings are slim across all the top jobs, from directors to producers to writers, editors, and cinematographers; women make up only 16% of these roles in the US.
It gets worse in the breakdown. Women are most represented as producers, but even here they only account for 25%, and as exec producers they lose 10 to come in at 15%. Editors are 17% women, writers 10%, directors only 6%, and cinematography rounds the stats out with a shocking 3%. But then, we live in a world where no woman has ever been Oscar-nominated for Cinematography.
This boys club continues the further down the techie rabbit hole you go. Production designers are a (not very) respectable 23% female, but the majority of technical production roles are overwhelmingly driven by testosterone. Sound is the next biggest provider of jobs for women, but only if you count 9% of supervising sound editors and 4% of sound designers as a win. Effects are even worse, with female VFX supervisors at 5% and special effects supervisors at a paltry 2%. And if you’re a musician, it’s doesn’t look good for you at all: women make up just 2% of the US’ film composers. And this is all without mentioning how these are further divided by low ratios for race or sexual orientation.
Accepting her Academy Award for Best Actress just last week, Cate Blanchett sent a message to those in the industry still opining that female-centric films are a niche market: “They are not. Audiences want to see them and, in fact, they earn money. The world is round, people.” It’s a sentiment that should echo not just across the face of the industry, from Dr. Ryan Stone to Katniss Everdeen to Patsey to Rayon, but right through it, to the women writing, directing, producing, sound editing, designing, and envisioning the big screen’s biggest stories.
The stats aren’t dissimilar across the pond, where 16% of writers and 11% of directors are women. Though the research isn’t quite so well-reaching – the British Film Institute’s latest report concentrates on writers and directors 2010-2012 – its enough to work out the industry trickledown and predict where other jobs will fall on the scale. And, despite technically higher percentages, the difference isn’t enough to scream and shout about – that’s still 47 female directors out 413, still 71 writers out of 441. British films made $5.3 billion worldwide between 2001-2012, but female-directed films took only a tiny fraction at 4.5% ($8.6 million), and only one British film in that top 200 (two hundred) worldwide gross was directed by a woman: Phyllida Lloyd’s Mamma Mia.
But on these shores, it’s not always all bad news for women in film. The BFI’s report also highlighted the rise (however marginal) of female screenwriters in the UK; narrowed down to the top 20 UK indies in that period, the percentage of female screenwriters jumps up to 37%. It’s the same when the stats are skewed for profit; female screenwriters wrote 30% of the UK’s profit-making films 2010-2012.
Alright, so it’s definitely a case of looking on the bright side – the number of female directors stays stubbornly low – but the BFI has identified a definite shift in the industry in favour of women. Rather than struggle up through the traditional career models, they’re consolidating their work in theatre and television before moving across, and when they do it’s women who are helping other women; female writers and directors are more likely to be working with female producers and exec producers, and/or to be funded by public sector investment like Film4, the BBC, or BFI / Lottery. Like water around a stone, women are identifying the best route around the old boys network and helping others to follow once they get there.
It’s the one thing they can’t control that still needs work for women in the UK: the audience. Gender-skewed audience biases are still prevalent, with a strong female audience bias for female written/directed features. Of the top 20 UK indies written and/or directed by women, 8 were skewed female in one or more age demographic, whilst films written/directed by men experienced very little audience bias in either direction. It’s a truth that must be universally acknowledged: men still won’t watch films made by women.
THE EMERGING MIDDLE EAST
What the first 15 years of the 21st century have achieved is a groundswell of women in Arab cinema, from Palestine’s Annemarie Jacir to Egyptian filmmaker Hala Lotfy to Haifaa al-Mansour, whose debut feature Wadjda was the first film ever to be entirely produced in her native Saudi Arabia (by a woman or a man). Where the barriers to female filmmakers in the West exist inside an entrenched industry with relatively little money, the Middle East’s rapidly expanding industry has the funding and the training; for these women, it’s a case of gaining support from their families. As the world moves further and further into the new century, women are outnumbering men on film courses in the Middle East.
It’s not all right-foot-forward; in a country where women won’t have the vote until 2015 the film industry is often a closed door, and Haifaa al-Mansour described Wadjda as the most stressful six weeks of her life. Her home country practises public gender segregation that meant she was often directing from a van with a walkie-talkie. But she also says that Saudi has changed, that along with suspicion and nerves their shoot was met with enthusiasm and kind people. That they submitted their script and got permission in a country that’s still very conservative is, she says, a sign of the changing times.
When these women do make their films, from Wadjda to Susan Youssef’s Habibi (Palestine), Djamila Sahraoui’s Yema (Algeria), and Leila Kilani’s On the Edge (Morocco), they’re at the forefront of the Middle East’s global movie presence. Their films premiere at Cannes, at Toronto, at Venice, at the biggest international festivals in the world. Unlike their Hollywood and UK counterparts, the modern Arab cinema movement is led by its women. It’s time for the rest of the world to listen up.
CHECK OUT OUR INFOGRAPHIC BELOW FOR SOME GREAT DIGESTIBLE STATS
The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 250 Films of 2013
Breakthrough for women screenwriters in 2010-2012
Female Screenwriters and Directors of UK Films, 2010-2012
How well are women represented in the UK independent film industry?
British film is booming but not for female directors
Saudi Arabia’s First Female Director Wants ‘Wadjda’ to Speak for Itself
Celebrating Arab Women Filmmakers