Oh 21st Century – we all had such high hopes.
Diablo Cody did great work for the quirky gal in all of us, winning an Oscar for Juno in 2007, Julie Delpy has been a fierce whirlwind of creativity since she first walked through Vienna in Before Sunrise and Nicole Perlman has just burst onto the comic book scene having co-written the latest Marvel smash hit Guardians of the Galaxy. But sadly, as with the two previous instalments of this often-depressing series on women screenwriters, I mostly have dire statistics to report. Just 15.5% of film screenwriters in 2012 were women, falling from 18.3% in 2006. They wrote only 9% of the speculative scripts sold in 2010-2012, and they are likely to be paid less for those scripts. They wrote just 10% of the top 250 films of 2013.
So what’s the deal? With Lena Dunham, Beyoncé and now even Taylor Swift out as proud feminists and movies such as Bridesmaids and Frozen supposedly breaking new ground for female comedies and feminist princess movies, it was all supposed to be so much brighter. And to be fair, in some ways it has been… just not on the right size screen. In the previous two pieces, I entirely disregarded television. Of course I did – this is a film website, isn’t it? Isn’t television the place where the small people go to watch things of absolutely no artistic value at all?
But as we finally slowly chug into the present day, it would be entirely remiss to not acknowledge the industry-shifting change in the way the public views and consumes television. What is going on with women screenwriters of the small screen is arguably ever more relevant to a discussion of their big screen cousins. As the 21st Century arrived, television splintered into hundreds of channels, initially appearing to lessen its impact: with so much to choose from, how could anything stand out? However, to ridiculously simplify a decade’s worth of technological development, the internet changed everything.
Suddenly, TV shows could be seen across the world with no need to wait for the box set release, their plots could be picked over in minute detail on online communities and, as its prestige grew, it no longer became a no-no for a big Hollywood talent to crossover. There’s a reason why we’re often told we’re in a Golden Age of television, a term that maybe disregards such previous epics as The West Wing but does pay credence to incredible popularity of Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. As websites such as Netflix and Hulu have come to the fore, little by little the creative behind them began to benefit. The number of women writers employed in TV increased by 16.3% from 2006-2012, the gender earning gap was reduced and, compared with film’s appalling 15.3%, around a third of all television writers are women.
A triumph of this change is Orange is the New Black, a dark comedy produced by Netflix that is set in a women’s prison. Written by a team of women of differing sexualities and ethnic backgrounds, it has gained critical acclaim for both its humour and for being a TV series in which women are so much more than the trophy wife or the hot cheerleader. Elsewhere, Liz Meriweather has made a success of the network sitcom with New Girl, Mindy Kaling is championing the rights of girly-girl feminists (which may sound like a bad thing, but it’s not) everywhere with The Mindy Project and Julie Plec and Shonda Rhimes have long dominated TV with their respective franchises (Vampire Diaries and Grey’s Anatomy, of course).
So, why has television done what film has not, not only employing more women but more women of colour, of varying sexualities and in senior positions? I’m happy to offer several speculative reasons. Firstly, films take longer to develop and longer to make, ergo change takes longer. Even if you are a production company looking to produce an incredible third wave feminist epic written by a kickass female duo, there’s so much legwork to do to even get the financial backing; it could be decades before your film comes to light, if it even does. Pilot season rolls around every year for new TV shows and, aside from that, most American shows run around 22 episodes – that’s 21 more chances for a woman screenwriter to get a shot than on a single film!
Secondly, films cost more and are more of a risk. Studio execs are likely to go with what they know will be successful, and often those films that they know will work are the films they’ve spent years making: action films that will sell well internationally or sequels of previously successful films, most likely written by men. Not that women don’t or can’t write action films or sequels. But for years an attitude pervaded that a film written by women and featuring women wouldn’t be a guaranteed success because it wouldn’t have cross-gender appeal. Thankfully Bridesmaids has gone some way in convincing Hollywood that that is frankly idiotic.
Lastly, though they’re working in a higher-stakes arena, film screenwriters don’t quite have the power of a television writer. Writers have always been more valued in TV than film. Television directors tend to come and go – there’s little time for ‘vision’ when you have so many episodes to pump out – but writers are there for the long haul, shaping the characters and the narrative arcs. As a woman screenwriter for film, you are less likely to be promoted as the author of your beloved baby of a script and less likely to be able to maintain creative control. Therefore, women TV writers have more klout and can do more with it.
Apologies as this does seem to have got a little off track – what do the ramblings about writing for television versus film really tell us about the status of women writers in Hollywood? Is there much to be positive about? I would argue yes. As fans revere women writers in television, as evidenced not just by their insane numbers of twitter followers but also their noticeable presence in both the media and production credits, it is only natural to assume that, with a little more time, this should extend onto the big screen.
The internet not only allows more people to watch more television and film, but also hear about it and discuss it – the goalposts of success and recognition for women have widened beyond Oscar wins. Sleeper hit Snowpiercer, jointly penned by Kelly Masterson, gained huge online buzz before its success. Middle of Nowhere, an incredible 2012 film about a nurse coming into her own, may have gone unnoticed by the Academy (an institution notoriously made of largely white male voters), but it was championed by bloggers across the web. To end on a note of optimism, I predict that as the boundaries between film and television content relax and the internet increases the scope for discovering and celebrating new work, women screenwriters will finally be able to find their own space within an industry that has never truly given them one.