Cannes Looks a Lot Like Hollywood: The Power Belongs to Men

AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau

From left, actor Forest Whitaker, director Jerome Salle and actor Orlando Bloom arrive for the awards ceremony of the 66th international film festival, in Cannes, southern France, Sunday, May 26, 2013.

When the Cannes International Film Festival opens on May 14, only two of the nineteen directors up for the prestigious Palme d’Or, the festival's highest honor, will be women. But before one starts assailing Cannes for sexism, consider this: The percentage of female directors in contention for the festival’s top prize is nearly twice as high as that of women directors working in Hollywood. Last year, only 6 percent of the directors working on the 250 highest-grossing American films were women, a number that has remained in the single digits since data was first collected in the late 1990s. Only four women have ever been nominated for a Best Director Oscar, and only one, Kathryn Bigelow in 2009, has won.

Directing is not the only behind-the-camera role dominated by men. Aside from female actors, the people who populate film sets are overwhelmingly male.  Men comprise nine out of every ten cinematographers, sound editors, visual-effects supervisors, and composers. Even in areas where women are better represented—producing, writing, and editing—they make up only around 20 percent.

In January, Oscar-nominated director Lexi Alexander published a blog post taking Hollywood to task for its sexism, unleashing an impassioned critique of the studio system: “Gender discrimination in Hollywood goes far beyond women simply not getting the gig...Women in Hollywood have no male allies," Alexander wrote. Her statement echoes remarks made by Sony Pictures Co-Chair Amy Pascal, one of a handful of female studio executives. While Hollywood executives have generally remained silent on the issue, Pascal broke ranks in May 2013 when she gave Forbes a candid assessment of women’s chances in Hollywood: “The whole system is geared for [women] to fail.” (Since then, she has qualified, telling The New York Times in March that “any problems are completely unconscious.”)

The Prospect sat down with Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, to talk about the reasons for the gender disparity in the film industry and what can be done to address it. Lauzen is the author of The Celluloid Ceiling, an annual report on behind-the-scenes employment of women in Hollywood.

Where does the gender disparity among female directors begin? Do fewer women than men enter film school?

There is no single reason why women remain under-employed in powerful behind-the-scenes roles. It is a very complex issue and a variety of factors contribute to the problem. However, women self-selecting out of becoming filmmakers is not one of them. A number of years ago, we surveyed the top film schools across the country and found that women accounted for one-third to over one-half of students in the programs considered. This finding counters the myth that women aren't interested in being filmmakers.

What, then, is responsible for the gap?

If you speak with a variety of people in the business, they will mention a number of reasons for women's on-going under-employment including attitudes regarding women's skills and ability, the increasing concentration of ownership (and subsequent reluctance to take risks), and an overall industry culture that is not inclined toward change.

Studio executives and producers talk about how the changing ownership structure of the business—the large studios are now owned by huge media conglomerates—has made them more risk averse.  Many executives suggest that they only bet on established directors who are sure things and that this is the reason for the disparity. This is simply not true. When Columbia hired Marc Webb to direct The Amazing Spider-Man with a budget in the neighborhood of $230 million, he had only directed a single feature, (500) Days of Summer. That was a risk. With only commercials on his résumé, Disney hired Joseph Kosinski to helm Tron: Legacy. Another risk. The reality is that many studio executives are willing to take risks on those individuals who possess a demographic profile similar to their own.

The research across industries is clear about this. People tend to hire others who look like they do, and so if the majority of individuals working as executives at the studios are white males, they are likely to be most comfortable hiring and working with white males. Often, this predisposition is not conscious, which is why awareness of women's ongoing under-employment is so important, and why substantial programs need to be implemented to increase the numbers of women working as our cultural storytellers.

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Kathryn Bigelow at the 2009 Academy Awards, where she was the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Director, awarded for the feature film The Hurt Locker

The number of women working as producers is far higher than as directors. What’s the reason for this?

I have heard people in the business offer a variety of explanations why women fare better as producers. In 2013, women accounted for 25 percent of producers on the top-grossing films. Some people believe that producing requires good multi-tasking skills and that women excel at juggling many duties simultaneously. I have heard others suggest that it's a less prestigious position than directing and so it has been easier for women to make in-roads.

Women comprise 39 percent of documentary directors screening at major festivals, but only 6 percent of directors of the highest-grossing 250 films. What factors account for this difference? Is there something from the documentary model we can apply to the industry model?

Overall, independents and documentaries have been more welcoming of women than large studio features because there are fewer barriers to entry. I also want to note that there is not a dearth of women directors. The data on women directors working on documentaries (and narrative features) screening at major festivals makes this clear. However, there is a severe lack of high-profile opportunities on big-budget studio films for women who direct. Directors working on tent-pole features not only enjoy the luxury of extravagant production budgets; they also benefit from the career enhancement that accompanies the huge marketing and advertising push these films receive. Working on these films helps male directors build larger-than-life reputations; they attain a kind of "boy wonder" status that buoys their career for years to come.

What can be done to fix the gender disparity on an institutional level?

Institutionally, this is a very difficult and complex issue to address. Optimists might suggest that with sufficient time and grassroots pressure, the powers-that-be at the studios will eventually acknowledge women's underemployment as a problem, and move to correct the inequities with more substantial practices than the current assortment of shadowing and mentorship programs.

Pessimists may consider the remarkable stability of the employment figures, as well as the community's seeming distaste for in change, and conclude that women's under-employment will only be corrected through the courts or the intervention of a government agency that would set measurable employment goals for the studios, establish an objective oversight body, and institute penalties for non-compliance.

Is there anything the average movie-goer can do?

The average movie-goer can "vote" with his or her dollars. If she or he wishes to support filmmakers who happen to be women or films with female protagonists, she or he should go see that film on opening weekend, and use social media to encourage her or his friends and acquaintances to do the same.

I read that the Directors Guild of America has recently ordered TV studios to start diversity programs. Have other efforts been made to increase the number of women working in film?

Traditionally, the diversity programs have involved very small numbers of individuals and have had a negligible impact on women's employment. In 2013, women accounted for 16 percent of directors, writers, producers, editors, and cinematographers. This number has remained relatively stable for the last 16 years. Also, how diversity is defined is important. If the overall intent of these programs is to increase diversity as broadly defined (to include race/ethnicity and gender), then the studios could increase the numbers of men without increasing the numbers of women. 

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