Hollywood made its very first $100 million film in 1994 with True Lies, directed by James Cameron. In the 22 years since, the industry has seen an explosion of films (335 to be exact) that have cost nine-digit sums to make, but not a single woman of color has been at the helm of one until now. Earlier this year it was announced that the Selma director Ava DuVernay would make A Wrinkle in Time, an adaptation of Madeleine’s L’Engle’s beloved children’s book of the same name. That in itself—a woman of color directing a major Disney film—was a significant accomplishment. But on Wednesday, the California Film Commission shared a list of projects that would receive tax credits, confirming that A Wrinkle in Time’s production budget would total at least $103 million.
Women, much less women of color, rarely get to direct feature films, let alone expensive studio blockbusters (women make just 3 percent of all big box-office movies). Working on A Wrinkle in Time puts DuVernay in the rarest of company—only Kathryn Bigelow (K-19: The Widowmaker) and Patti Jenkins (next year’s Wonder Woman) have crossed the $100 million mark—though she acknowledges that her talent alone didn’t let her make history.
Those defending Hollywood’s lack of diversity among directors commonly cite inexperience as a major reason for hiring mostly white men. The latest evidence against this much-debunked myth is the upcoming film Suicide Squad, which cost $175 million and was directed by David Ayer, “who had never made a giant, effects-packed action movie,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. The outlet’s investigation of Suicide Squad’s production woes reaffirmed how “not experienced enough” is at best a disingenuous excuse, and at worst a willful obfuscation of how tentpole economics work.
Hiring filmmakers who lack such [blockbuster] experience is the trend, and it’s often out of necessity. “There are a lot of people who don't want to direct those movies and that's a huge problem,” says one producer with franchise experience. “A lot of the proven guys are back-to-back with their stuff, or they want to develop it for five years, and there's a machine that has to be fed. And there’s the economics.” Seasoned directors are expensive, meaning studios turn to those with less experience, relying on instinct that they will be up to the job. Sometimes it works (Colin Trevorrow on Jurassic World), and sometimes it doesn’t (James Bobin on Alice Through the Looking Glass).
This should ostensibly mean that blockbusters are a training ground—or a crash course—for directors looking to make the leap to more ambitious projects. DuVernay will come to A Wrinkle in Time with an arguably stronger resume than many first-time tentpole directors: Her previous (and third) feature film, Selma, cost $20 million and made more than three times that amount while garnering several Oscar and Golden Globe nominations.
It’s fitting that the first woman of color to helm a $100 million film has also been a lot of other “firsts”: the first black woman to win best director at Sundance, the first black female director to be nominated for a Golden Globe, and the first to have a film nominated for an Oscar. (A Wrinkle in Time, out next year, will star another, even more monumental achiever of “firsts” in Oprah Winfrey.) DuVernay is now enjoying momentum in her career that will likely help her smash plenty of other barriers, showing studios that women and people of color belong—and have always belonged—in the director’s chair.