Half the films at Sundance this year were directed by women, compared with 4.4 percent of studio movies—but those proportions seem set to change.
At the Oscars ceremony this weekend, not only will Kathryn Bigelow's name not be read out on the list of the nominees for a Best Director Oscar, but for the 81st time in 85 years, no other woman's will be, either. And while blame for Bigelow's Oscar snub is being laid on Zero Dark Thirty' s perceived controversial politics, the lack of any other women nominees for a directing award exposes a more fundamental problem: the scarcity of women playing major roles both off screen and on screen in Hollywood.
Even though women buy 50 percent of movie tickets and form a majority of the U.S. population, only 4.4 percent of Hollywood's top 100 studio movies are directed by women in any given year. The disproportionately small number of female directors in Hollywood seems to have a direct impact on the number of women seen on-screen. A 2010 USC Annenberg study led by Stacy L. Smith notes that movies with male directors featured only 29.3 percent female actors, whereas in movies with at least one female director, that number rose to 44.6 percent.
But while this year's Oscars may reinforce Hollywood's long-entrenched gender gap, women directors appear to be reaching a critical mass in the independent film world—a development that may soon lead to changes in the mainstream industry.
At the recent Sundance Film Festival, a record 50 percent of the films in the U.S. Dramatic Competition were directed by women. Overall, of the 119 films at Sundance this year, 34 percent had female directors. And for the second year in a row, a woman (Jill Soloway) won the Best Director Award in the U.S. Dramatic Competition, following last year's winner Ava DuVernay.
A new USC Annenberg study co-authored by Stacy L. Smith, Katherine Pieper, and Marc Choueiti confirms that there are more opportunities for women directors in the indie world versus the studio world. Commissioned by the Sundance Institute and Women in Film Los Angeles, the study examined 820 feature films screened at Sundance from 2002 to 2012. The study found that 22.2 percent of the festival's U.S. narrative-competition films and 41.1 percent of the U.S. documentary-competition films were directed by women.
What accounts for the gap between Sundance and Hollywood when it comes to women? Smith says that ingrained attitudes about female directors and stars play a big role: "In Hollywood, women in front of or behind the camera still seem to be perceived as a risky investment."
At a Sundance panel on women directors, Naomi Foner (an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, and the mother of Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal) described to me the difficulty she had in getting her directing debut Very Good Girls (starring Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen) off the ground. Foner said she had been in meetings in which she pointed out the success of women-centered films like Sex and the City, Twilight, and The Hunger Games, and "the executive will say to you, 'That was a fluke.'"
When I spoke with Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke at the Los Angeles Film Festival this past summer, she echoed what Smith and Foner said, telling me that "all the writers I know now, even right after The Hunger Games, go to meetings and have pitches for television series for female protagonists, and they're told [Hardwicke mimics a deep male voice], 'Well, we need a male protagonist.' It's so bizarre, it's like there's a disconnect." Jerusha Hess, who co-wrote Napoleon Dynamite, has heard similar stories: "I've had friends who've done animation, and they're told they can't sell this because there's not a boy in this fairy tale, and you're like, 'It's a fairy tale—it's supposed to be about a girl.'"
But research shows that the gender of the lead protagonist—or the gender of the director—plays little role in the box-office success of a film. According to Stacy Smith, a 2007 USC Annenberg study she carried out with Rene Weber of UCSB and Marc Choueiti found that what is most important in the success of a film is the size of the production budget, the breadth of distribution, and the strength of the story. Dr. Martha Lauzen similarly finds in her research at San Diego State's Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film that the size of the production budget is the chief determinant of a film's success, rather than the gender of the director or the lead protagonist.
This helps explain why blockbuster, women-directed films like Twilight, Brave, Mamma Mia!, and Kung Fu Panda 2, as well as films with women in the lead like The Hunger Games, Alice in Wonderland, Titanic, The Sound of Music, The Exorcist, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Gone With the Wind (still the highest-grossing film of all time, adjusted for inflation) did so well at the box office: They had significant budgets and A-list talent poured into them.
And yet if successes won't change minds in Hollywood, what will?
The rising number of women at festivals like Sundance provides an encouraging sign. There is evidence that support from the indie-film world can directly foster more female voices in Hollywood. The USC Annenberg report reveals that of the 4.4 percent of women who directed the top studio films over the past 11 years (a total of 41 unique women directors), 41.5 percent of them had received support from the Sundance Institute's programs or had had their films screened at the festival.
Writer/director Lynn Shelton, best known for her comedy-drama Your Sister's Sister (2012), first broke through as a director thanks to the independent film community. Her 2009 film Humpday won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance, and Shelton returned to the festival's competition this year with the well-received Touchy Feely.