Geena Davis’s Documentary Explains How Hollywood Fails Women Filmmakers

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This Changes Everything
Directed by Tom Donahue

This straightforward documentary tries to answer the questions that kicked off my blog: 1) Why are there so few female directors? 2) What can we do to change that? Produced by Geena Davis’s Institute on Gender in Media, this in an activist work that concludes with a call to action for unions, studios, and individuals. For moviegoers, the challenge is to support female filmmakers by making sure that half the films you watch are either directed or written by women.

As someone who has been doing this for almost two years, I can tell you that it takes planning and deliberation to ensure that 50% of the movies you watch are made by women. You will have to seek them out, because they aren’t show in as many theaters as movies directed by men—and that’s one of the big reasons that women don’t advance in their directing careers. Their first films don’t receive as much publicity or distribution and then they don’t have a big box office. This makes it more difficult to secure financing for the second film or to be considered for studio jobs. Talent agencies are then less likely to promote female filmmakers. And so the vicious cycle goes.

With striking data, This Changes Everything, describes the discrimination and obstacles that women filmmakers are up against. In 2018, 85% of top 100 grossing films were written by men, and of the 112 directors behind the 100 top-grossing movies of 2018, only 3.6% were directed women. A recent article in Variety claims that the numbers are moving in the right direction, with possibly 14 of the 100 top-grossing movies in 2019 directed by women, including some of the “big” fall titles like Frozen II, Little Women, and It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Still, this hardly feels like a sea change, and in my own research, I haven’t seen a huge increase in female directors slated for 2020 and 2021. I hope I’m wrong, but after watching Davis’s documentary, it seems to me that male executives are going to have to take a much more active role in addressing their hiring biases.

Davis argues persuasively that the bias against women begins in children’s entertainment. She started her research into gender bias after watching television shows with her daughter and realizing that almost all the lead characters were male. When she pointed out this problem to entertainment executives, she was told that sexism she was describing didn’t exist to the extent that she was describing it. So, she founded her institute to gather the data. After a few years, she was able to put numbers to her observations and to convince executives that there was a problem. Thanks, in part to her efforts, there is now more gender parity in children’s television, but it persists in children’s film, as well as in popular films for adults.

Here are some of her recent findings, pulled from her institute’s 2019 Executive Summary, which is available on seejane.org:

Children’s Films

  • Unlike children’s television, a gender gap in leading/co-leading characters persists in children’s films. In 2018, male characters make up 67.2% of leads, compared to 32.8% female leads in children’s films.
  • Female characters account for 36.6% of speaking time and 39.8% of screen time in children’s films.

Popular Films

  • Popular films (the top 100 grossing films rated G – R) are better than children’s films when it comes to gender and leading/co-leading characters, but gender parity is elusive. Male characters make up 60.9% of leads, far outpacing female leads (39.1%).
  • Female characters account for 36.2% of speaking time and 39.0% of screen time.

I appreciate this data because I think it shows bias against women starts early and accumulates over time. When you see more men, and hear more men during your most impressionable years, your brain naturally begins to prioritize the experiences of men. The bias becomes emotional as well as intellectual. A big reason that women aren’t given director jobs is that they aren’t viewed by executives as “authoritative enough.” Putting aside the question of whether or not a director needs to take a commanding approach, it’s simply not true that women aren’t able to manage complex projects—they do it all the time, in a variety of fields. Unfortunately, we don’t see a lot of women embodying these roles in popular culture. Another vicious cycle.

The title of This Changes Everything comes from the false sense of hope that women in Hollywood get every time a film with female leads does well at the box office. For Davis, that moment was with Thelma & Louise, a movie that put her and Susan Sarandon on the cover of Time. Davis credits that film with her feminist awakening, and she followed it with A League of Her Own—another big box office success. And yet, nothing really changed after those movies. Nor did anything change after other female-led films like First Wives Club, Clueless, Mean Girl, Frozen, Girls Trip and Hidden Figures were shown to be financially lucrative. Studios are still more likely to invest in a movies with male leads.

Unfortunately, we don’t hear from many male studio heads in this documentary. Instead, we hear from a lot of women in Hollywood, including a group of female directors who, working with the ACLU, filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, requesting an investigation for “systematic failure to hire women directors.” Ideally, the studios’ hiring practices would be examined, and they would have to show that women were considered for big directing jobs. As it stands now, women are rarely considered for studio pictures, for all the reasons I’ve mentioned already, but also because women are paid less, and so talent agents, who work on commission, are less likely to promote them. (According to reporting by Variety, the EEOC’s investigation has been stalled and no one at the agency will comment.)

One final piece of the gender bias puzzle is the fact that men dominate film criticism;  in 2018, 77.8% of reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes were male. Critical response isn’t everything, but it does affect a film’s success, and sometimes even its distribution and PR campaign. For the past few months, I haven’t been reviewing movies as often, in part because I’ve been working on a novel, but also because blogging can feel shouting in the dark. But when I saw that number I felt newly inspired to write and think about film. So, watch this space–and watch Davis’s documentary.

 

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